Funeral Industry: A Horse is a Horse, Of Course, Of Course
Hard to believe, a memorial service for a horse won the award of excellence for a funeral home. Of course, it could be a case of sour grapes, that the funeral home which I nominated did not win despite the fact that they exemplify teamwork, integrity, communication and compassion. The memorial service for the horse, who incidentally happened to die in the line of duty was written up by a national newspaper. The horse sadly met its demise at the bumper of a car that ran a stop light. In contrast, the funeral home which I nominated quietly goes about its business of serving families in the community before, during and after their time of need.
Not one media person has ever come to the funeral home and used the staff as a resource in the past four years while I did my fieldwork. Despite several damning articles in the newspaper about funeral homes and the funeral industry in general, not one journalist took the time to seek out a funeral director for clarification about the law, about North American deathways, or funeral home procedure. On the other hand, I have left messages and sent emails to the press with the hope of educating the media. I doubt anyone is surprised to learn that no one has ever contacted me for further clarification of my messages. In fact, I once left a very detailed message which I followed up with an email copied to the journalist and the editor, and even taking that rather aggressive approach did not generate enough interest for a journalist to come to the funeral home and meet either with me or the directing manager.
Many within the funeral industry feel as if they are constantly under the watchful eye of the media, which is waiting with baited breath, for there to be a slip up. How exciting to catch the death workers, those tall, gaunt men portrayed in dark shadowy rooms performing mysterious operations on corpses. Funeral directors are portrayed in literature as well as in movies as stereotypes who are quite other; an unusual group of individuals who dabble on the dark side. Stereotypes capture the imagination and often prevent the public from seeing funeral directors as cultural experts or as I like to think of them as ritual specialists who transform the dead from the ghastly corpse into a socially accepted symbol of the person who has died. The stereotype of the funeral director has a long history in which those involved in the dismal trade have been portrayed as ?objects of ridicule, subjects for satire, and generally as cardboard characters?(Laderman 2003:86). Mark Twain portrayed the undertaker in Life on the Mississippi as shifty, ambitious, callous, deceitful and an arrogant schemer. Laderman also suggests that the characterizations of the funeral director served as a vehicle for recent criticism of everything that was wrong with American deathways ? too materialistic, too secular and too unrealistic (2003:92).
In his book which describes the cultural history of the American Funeral home in the 20th century, Rest in Peace, Gary Laderman (2003) devotes a chapter to Jessica Mitford, perhaps the most famous journalist to launch an attack on the funeral industry. Mitford?s book became a launching pad for public attacks which forced funeral directors to respond to the cruel depictions found in popular media. The funeral industry was under attack and it made great press. Mitford condemned the industry for making a business out of selling services for the last passage. Before Mitford, the industry survived because the experience of the bereaved with their local funeral director did not for the most part reflect the popular portrayal of the funeral director in popular media. The truth is that funeral directors were no match for Jessica Mitford who persuaded the public with humour, wit, and sarcasm that the stereotype was indeed the reality.
Since Jessica Mitford wrote The American Way of Death (1963) and again revisited the subject in 1998, there have been others who have felt the need to ride on her coattails. Occasionally, there have been writers from within the industry who have deemed themselves to be the whistleblowers for the public, but no one has been as successful in bringing negative publicity to the industry as Mitford. Cries from the industry fell on deaf ears. Laderman?s book never made it to the best seller?s list. Why not? Simple answer is that he chose to open up the discussion about the funeral industry by presenting a very different portrayal, one which identifies the social, psychological and cultural forces which have acted upon those who live and die in North America and the professionals who deal with the dead and bereaved. As a historian, Laderman sought out new sources which supported the recorded history of the funeral industry, of embalming and funerary ritual as well as individuals who could speak from the inside with expertise. In some respects, the book became an apology, refuting Mitford?s claims. Following Laderman?s lead, my own research portrays funeral directors very differently from Mitford. Yes, there are rogues in the industry and they need to be dealt with by the powers within the industry, licensing boards and their tribunals. Much of what Mitford wrote does not stand up to scrutiny. A Catholic priest from Montana does not speak for all priests or clergy. She fails to take into account the spirituality of North Americans let alone their culture and the way we are tied to our land. Ultimately, despite her huge success, Mitford missed the boat in her discussion of the funeral industry. She was novel in her approach, burying her personal grudge deep within her research. In the final analysis, she found the weak links in the industry and that makes for interesting reading.
Where Mitford was correct was her prediction concerning the rise of ?corporates? in the funeral industry. She believed these rapidly growing companies would lose sight of service in favor of sales and that families would suffer as a result. Mitford opposed ostentatious expensive funerals served up by ?salesmen? masquerading as funeral directors.
To an extent, Mitford has made us all watchdogs of the funeral industry, whether her name is a household name or not. I suppose that is why the memorial for the horse made the news but the values and hard work of the funeral directors working with bereaved families on a daily basis is not noteworthy. Of course, when the body which was to be buried was cremated by mistake, that made the front page. Why? It was a personal tragedy story and that sells newspapers. Public beware !! Sad to say, we are more interested in what goes wrong than when things go right. When things go wrong in the funeral industry, they go very wrong and the public becomes ?spooked? about every funeral director, funeral home, crematorium and cemetery.
I am not sure how to change the public image, other than one funeral at a time, one family at a time. I return to my premise that education is key, inside the industry as well as outside in the public forum. As well, returning to Pine (1973), who believed that community funeral homes are better able to present themselves as having a vested interest in their community by participating in volunteer organizations and sitting on local boards. Finally, we need to remember that families are part of the funeral home team and we need to listen carefully to what they are saying and respond with care and compassion.