Death + Popular Culture Death + the Economy

We Need to Die

Todd May
Todd May

Nice Opinion piece in today’s NY Times laying out some fundamental philosophical underpinnings of life and death. It is titled “Happy Ending” and is written by Todd May, a professor of philosophy at Clemson University. May is the author of 10 books including The Philosophy of Foucault and Death.

This is the last in a series of essays written for the Times titled Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times. I’ve been reading and enjoying the series. I recommend taking a look as several are on the theme of death and dying.

Death + Humor Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Wal-Mart: Save Money. Live Better. Die Cheap(ly).

Wal-Mart Offering Low-Cost Caskets, Urns On Its Website
Emily Fredrix, Associated Press (October 28, 2009)

It’s all over the death-dar: following Costco’s lead, Wal-Mart now offers caskets and urns for sale online, with priority Fed-Ex freight shipment anywhere in the continental U.S.

With prices that undercut funeral home options combined with its juggernaut consumer base — not to mention “and in this economy” as all are wont to say — Wal-Mart can expect to make a, well, killing in the death biz, potentially causing the funeral industry to rethink its pricing strategies and oftentimes gouging of customers. In the meantime, the rest of us can enjoy / be numbed by the terrible puns of talking heads:

[This was one a video, but it’s been removed. It was terrible.]

This poor man actually apologizes for the crappy copy halfway through, sunk beneath his breath, “I didn’t write this.” Oh, the humanity! The indignity!

When death meets consumerism meets mass media, watch out. When nothing is sacred — is trivialized, cheap — we don’t have to think about what anything means. Like death, and ripping off the bereaved, and making unethical purchases because it’s all you can afford.

Death + the Economy Death + the Law

Witness for the Execution

One Reporter’s Lonely Beat, Witnessing Executions
Richard Pérez-Peña, New York Times (October 20, 2009)

The NY Times ran an interesting article yesterday about an AP reporter who has witnessed more executions than any other person in America. His name is Michael Graczyk and since the 1980’s, he has seen over 300 executions in Texas, although in actuality he has lost count. Due to the faltering economy, Mr. Graczyk is one of the few journalists left doing this type of reportage.

Although Mr. Graczyk takes a generally dispassionate approach to his work, he recalled one particularly chilling incident.

One inmate “sang ‘Silent Night,’ even though it wasn’t anywhere near Christmas,” Mr. Graczyk said. “I can’t hear that song without thinking about it. That one really stuck with me.”

Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Death and the Economy: Too Many Unclaimed Dead Bodies for the Body Farm…

Indigent Burials Are on the Rise
Katie Zezima, The New York Times (October 11, 2009)

Regular readers of the Death Reference Desk will recognize that the nationwide increase in indigent burials is a significant trend. Since this summer, when Death Ref launched, we have routinely posted articles on the uptick in unclaimed dead bodies under the Death and the Economy category.

The lead from this most recent New York Times article sums up the entire situation:

Coroners and medical examiners across the country are reporting spikes in the number of unclaimed bodies and indigent burials, with states, counties and private funeral homes having to foot the bill when families cannot.

What makes this article a little different than the others is that it presents some hard facts and figures on the wave of unclaimed bodies.

  • Oregon has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of unclaimed bodies over the past few years.
  • About a dozen states now subsidize the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies, including Illinois, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • Financing in Oregon comes from fees paid to register the deaths with the state. The state legislature in June voted to raise the filing fee for death certificates to $20 from $7, to help offset the increased costs of state cremations, which cost $450.
  • Already in 2009, Wisconsin has paid for 15 percent more cremations than it did last year.
  • Boone County, Mo., hit its $3,000 burial budget cap last month, and took $1,500 out of a reserve fund to cover the rest of the year.
  • The medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., Dr. Carl Schmidt, bought a refrigerated truck after the morgue ran out of space. The truck, which holds 35 bodies, is currently full, Dr. Schmidt said. “We’ll buy another truck if we have to,” he said.

These numbers present an interesting unclaimed dead body index, but the following point really jumped out at me:

  • In Tennessee, medical examiner and coroners’ offices donate unclaimed remains to the Forensic Anthropological Research Center, known as the “Body Farm,” where students study decomposition at the University of Tennessee. The facility had to briefly halt donations because it had received so many this year…

The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee was specifically built to study how dead bodies decompose in order to assist criminal investigations. The Body Farm needs, by its very definition, dead bodies to operate; even it (a place which requires corpses to function) had to stop accepting unclaimed bodies because there were too many of them.

I want to stress this particular point: There were/are too many unclaimed dead bodies for even the Body Farm…a place solely built to study dead bodies.

It is difficult to say where this situation goes next. I don’t expect to see the unclaimed corpse trend reverse anytime soon and, indeed, I expect it to go even higher. What I do think will happen, down the road, is that more and more of these unclaimed bodies will end up in bio-medical tissue products. But that is a post for another day.

Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Death and the Economy: Unclaimed Bodies Fill the Detroit Morgue

Detroit: Too broke to bury their dead
Poppy Harlow, (October 1, 2009)

This CNN story on Detroit is heartbreaking. The economic situation in Detroit is horrible enough, but this particular dispatch says more about the financial straits of life and death than anything I have seen.

Over the summer, the New York Times ran an article on why home burials were a sign of the recession. I wrote about it here. The unclaimed dead body situation in Detroit is a much more profound statement about the economy than home burials.

Not only can families not afford to retrieve a deceased loved one because of the cost (even if they want to) the Wayne County Morgue does not have enough money for the final disposition of the bodies. So the bodies all remain in cold storage, waiting for something to happen.

Watch this video attached to CNN article:

Articles about the economy and death have been a re-occurring theme the last few months. This article got published in Green Bay, WI: Unclaimed cremated remains accumulate at Allouez cemetery.

Unclaimed Cremated Remains in Green Bay

Earlier in September, the New York Times ran an article on Wall Street investment firms buying and selling elderly and ill persons’ life insurance policies: The Back to Business: Wall Street Pursues Profit in Bundles of Life Insurance.

And this AP article discusses a subject that I assumed would pop up eventually: Weak economy sparks rebirth of funeral sciences.

Then there are these stories: that the economy is actually good for some funeral homes because of increased mortality rates…

The video is the lead to this article about a Dallas, TX funeral home: At Golden Gate Funeral Home, Bodies Are John Beckwith Jr.’s Business, And Business Is Booming.

But when push comes to shove, and the economy gets really really bad, there is always Craigslist…

Date: 2009-07-20, 10:59AM
Guaranteed to keep your Goth hide translucent white during these hot and bright summer days, this hand-made coffin is just right for the petit Vampire or Vampette. If you are just under 5 feet tall (or can shape-shift to something smaller) with a 29-inch wing span, you will feel cozy and safe sleeping away the pesky daylight hours with this tasteful but unassuming box tucked away in your lair.

Goth Coffin

Your minions can keep your chamber mobile with these fine handles made of Transylvanian hemp and the tucked and buttoned red padded lining will have you snoring until sun down. The hand-painted, one-of-a-kind, whimsical take on a Coptic cross is certain not to offend any version of Goth, vamp or even warm-blood who might have the privilege of actually seeing your private chamber.

It’s hard to let this beautiful treasure go, but we’ve just run out of room. And with all of the sensible people around (see True Blood), we just don’t need to be so private anymore. It can be found and taken for free in the 3400 block of Barranca circle near Mt Bonnell. Better hurry though. It is Big Trash week in our neighborhood.

Death + the Economy Suicide

Stressed Out


In the U.S. and overseas, the recession is taking a toll. In addition to bodies stacking up at morgues and cemeteries in foreclosure, we can now add to the list the phenomenon of economy-induced, work-related suicides.

As reported in The Guardian and other news outlets, France Telecom is experiencing a rash of suicides that began in the beginning of 2008. Since that time, there have been 24 suicides and 13 attempted suicides among the company’s 100,000 employees. The cause? Work stress. You can also listen to the full story on today’s All Things Considered.

Stress-related deaths are nothing new. In Japan, the country has seen an increase in incidents of karoshi, which literally translates to “death from overwork.” However, karoshi differs from stress-related suicide in that the manner of death is attributed to heart attack or stroke. Government and business leaders have begun to acknowledge, albeit slowly, the problems associated with over-working and have started to implement programs that strive to achieve more of a work/life balance.

Death + the Economy Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

America and End of Life Care: Death, Dying, and Mortality

At the End, Offering Not a Cure but Comfort
Anemona Hartocollis, New York Times (August 19, 2009)

I started and re-started this post on American Health Care reform several times. To watch America’s current Health Care debate (such as it is…) makes me all the happier that I now live in the UK and am covered by the National Health Service. I have no problems with the NHS and I am glad that it exists.

Do Not Resuscitate Tattoo

One part of the NHS that impresses me most is its National End of Life Care Programme. The EOLC Programme’s mission statement provides a succinct mandate:

OUR AIM: To improve the quality of care at the end of life for all patients and enable more patients to live and die in the place of their choice.

What I think is fundamentally important about this NHS program is that it acknowledges the obvious: people die. Indeed, the program was explicitly created to embrace death so that the dying process is made as comfortable as possible for UK residents.

Do No Resuscitate

Herein lies one of the key reasons that I think the American Health Care reform debate is failing: Serious discussions about death, dying, and mortality have been jettisoned. What America needs more than ever, right now, is a National Conversation about dying because until that occurs, health care reform will continue to ignore that one part of human biology that we all share: Death.

And yet, paradoxically, it would seem that this kind of conversation is going on all the time.

The New York Times article at the top offers a lengthy and important discussion on End of Life Care in American hospitals. And NYTimes Health columnist Jane Brody offered this recent piece: End-of-Life Issues Need to Be Addressed.

President Obama made it clear in May that he was interested in a National Conversation about End of Life Care in a lengthy New York Times Magazine interview about the economy.

It is a long(ish) interview, so if you click here you can skip to the bit on Obama’s Grandmother and how her death informed his own thinking about End of Life decisions.

Do Not Resuscitate Bracelet

The problem, of course, is that people rarely talk to their family members about death. To bring home this point, the August 7, 2005 New York Times Magazine featured this article: Will We Ever Arrive at the Good Death?

Here is the key quote from that article:

As J. Donald Schumacher, president of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, said last April to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, “Americans are more likely to talk to their children about safe sex and drugs than to their terminally ill parents about choices in care as they near life’s final stages.”

Let me be clear that I think that President Obama is delving into an extremely urgent topic but, ironically, he is not the first modern American president to discuss end of life decision making. Oh no. Not by a long shot.

Some of the first presidential statements on death involved Ronald Reagan. In the early 1980’s, President Reagan received a series of reports on death and dying from some totally forgotten (but important) bioethics commissions:

  • Defining Death: Medical, Legal and Ethical Issues in the Determination of Death (July 9, 1981)
  • Deciding to Forego Life-Sustaining Treatment: Ethical, Medical, and Legal Issues in Treatment Decisions (March 21, 1983)
  • So, in a way, President Obama is attempting to carry out a project begun by President Reagan and is actually acting very Reaganesque. But I digress…

    For me, the key reason President Obama has seen his health care debate derailed is that he dared to embrace death. Or, at least, to suggest that end of life care is something that needs to be discussed (on the local and national level) since individuals need to be clear in their own heads about how they want to die.

    And since President Obama is involving himself in this debate, it means that the head of the nation is suddenly speaking out about death and dying. As a result, Obama is acknowledging a much more profound dilemma for modern America: the nation-state (as in America) usually ignores death at all costs.

    At a certain point, the nation can do absolutely nothing about death and instead it focuses on mortality. Death is utterly ignored by the nation because it represents that one, final act that an individual can choose and that beyond a certain point-in-time no life will return. President Obama isn’t anywhere near making statements about who lives and who dies. But he is making it clear that death is inevitable. (I am unfairly paraphrasing Michel Foucault’s comments from his Society Must Be Defended lectures, p. 248).

    That alone, I think, is causing some of the biggest problems.

    Do Not Resuscitate Logo

    All of this is to say, that American health care reform begins and ends with death. And until those discussions occur, America will continue with its current system.

    If you’re interested in making sure that your own end of life requests are followed, then use this information offered by Jane Brody of the New York Times.

    To help people make sound health care decisions and get the care they would want for themselves or their family members as life draws to a close, the National Institute on Aging has produced a comprehensive 68-page booklet, “End-of-Life: Helping With Comfort and Care.” Individual free copies can be obtained through the institute’s Web site,, or by calling 800-222-2225.

Death + the Economy Death + the Law Death Ethics

Death and the Economy (redux): More and More Unclaimed Bodies in County Morgues

Death in the Recession: More Bodies Left Unburied
Alison Stateman, Time Magazine (August 07, 2009)

News stories about unclaimed dead bodies, accumulating in morgues across America, continue to pop up. Death Ref Librarian Kim found this one and I decided to post it. What makes this particular Time article slightly different than the other articles I have already posted on the unclaimed body phenomena is this: it discusses the problem from coast to coast. This is not an isolated, geographically contained problem.

When unprecedented numbers of unclaimed dead bodies stop filling county morgues, then I’ll believe that the American economic recession is in retreat.

Cemeteries Death + the Economy

Death and the Economy: California Cemetery in Foreclosure…

Final Resting Place, In Foreclosure
Theresa Vargas and Michael Williamson, Washington Post, (August 4, 2009)

Just when it seemed that news about the US economy and Death could not get any odder (and/or sadder), I came across the following blog post. Two writers employed by the Washington Post, Theresa Vargas and Michael Williamson, run a blog called Half a Tank: Along Recession Road and they are documenting how the recession is altering everyday life. Their posting on an Imperial Valley, California, cemetery in foreclosure is both predictable and astounding.

Cemeteries in foreclosure are not entirely new but it doesn’t happen all that frequently, either. Usually, cemeteries fall into disrepair because the owners stop the upkeep and/or the living relatives of the deceased have also died and no one comes to the cemetery.

Oddly, the last two days have seen similar cemetery stories in both the Washington Post and the New York Times. On Monday, August 3, the New York Times ran the following article: With Demise of Jewish Burial Societies, Resting Places Are in Turmoil.

I expect that more and more of these cases will pop up in the coming years. Family members die. Money comes and goes. Younger generations are no longer taken to the grave sites.

For what it is worth, I do not think that these stories are all that terrible. I like to imagine what future archaeologists will say when they uncover these abandoned burial grounds.

That, for me, is the future for forgotten cemeteries. We, the living, have no control over what stories our dead bodies will tell.

cremation Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Death and the Economy: Unclaimed Corpses Accumulate at the LA County Morgue

More bodies go unclaimed as families can’t afford funeral costs
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times (July 21, 2009)

This LA Times article (sent to me by my friend Karyn) is a sad and predictable explanation of how the American economic recession is affecting the poor. In a nutshell, next of kin do not have the available funds to collect either a dead body and/or the postmortem cremated remains.

In yesterday’s Death Ref commentary on the New York Times home burial article, I mentioned that unclaimed bodies in county morgues are a much better gauge of economic stress than people choosing to bury a deceased loved one at home. The LA Times piece explains this point in much more detail than the short article I posted on Ohio county morgues dealing with the same situation.

Albert Gaskin, LA cemetery caretaker, examines cremated remains of unclaimed bodies

Inevitably, the unclaimed cremated remains accumulate and over time cemeteries, crematoriums, and funeral homes become inadvertent store houses for the remains. It is worth noting that this photo (taken by Anne Cusack and which I grabbed from the LA Times article) shows Evergreen Cemetery caretaker Albert Gaskin sorting through massive shelves of unclaimed cremated remains.

Those boxes are all unclaimed, cremated bodies.

And given enough time, many institutions that store the remains change owners, close down, and/or simply disappear. Unless there is a mass burial at some point, those unclaimed human remains sit on the shelves and in the worst case scenarios are forgotten about and then re-discovered.

Death Ref co-founder Kim found a remarkable photography series by David Maisel and it explores one of these lost-then-rediscovered sites. It is a collection of photos of unclaimed created remains, stored in copper canisters, at a (now) shut down Oregon psychiatric hospital. Maisel calls the images the Library of Dust.

Library of Dust, indeed.

Cemeteries Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Home is Where the Dead Body Is

Home Burials Offer an Intimate Alternative
Katie Zezima, New York Times (July 21, 2009)

Tuesday’s New York Times featured a front page article — FRONT PAGE — on people who choose home burials for a deceased love one. Economic concerns are given as a key reason for any upsurge in home burials, because they do tend to be less expensive than traditional funeral services. The contemporary practice of home burial (where the body is kept in a private home so that family and friends can see it before burial or cremation) is not new and it most certainly predates the current economic recession. A strong case can be made that ‘home burials’ are actually a return to a more common 19th and early 20th century funereal practice. That said, I want to focus on the current trend reported by the Times.

In August 2004, for example, Public Television’s POV documentary film series aired a really fantastic home burial documentary entitled A Family Undertaking. The POV documentary follows different groups of families (each with a dying relative) and shows how the home burial is prepared. All of the families involved demonstrate time and time again how the home burial choice is a labor of love.

The fundamentally important part of any home burial is to understand what the local state law says about dead bodies. I say the following with complete sincerity (and as the son of a Funeral Director): most people are capable of handling their own funerals. Here is the most important information to know: 1.) what kinds of permits are required to transport dead bodies, 2.) who signs which pieces of paperwork, and 3.) what the local state law says about the final disposition of the body.

Final disposition is a fancy way of saying burial or cremation or any other legally sanctioned form of dead body disposal. Some states give more time than others for final disposition, it depends. Here is the key: ALL American states put their laws online and it is fairly easy to key word search ‘dead body’ or ‘corpse’ to see what the local law states.

The Times article also suggests that the renewed interest in home burials is another sign of economic stress. I’m not so sure. I agree that home burials do cost less than a full-on funeral home funeral, but I’m not convinced that economics really drives it. Economic concerns might function as a catalyst but it seems to me that many people choose home burial because it feels more meaningful.

I think that a better gauge of economic duress is this: the increase in unclaimed bodies in county morgues. These are situations where the next of kin cannot afford to pay the various burial costs so they leave the body in the morgue and local officials take care of the corpse.

All of this is to say, that as individuals begin to choose more and more varied forms of final disposition we will see increasing funereal variation, such as home burials. On the one hand, I totally understand this practice and support it. On the other hand, I really enjoy the classic 19th century cemeteries found across America and I would never turn away a chance to be buried in one. Quick aside: the New York Times ran a wonderful article a few days ago on the land surveyor at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The funniest part of the New York Times article is towards the end. It discusses how Maine carpenter Chuck Lakin makes handmade wooden coffins that can also double as bookshelves or display shelves… until death calls.

Chuck Lakin, coffin builder

Just by chance, a friend of mine sent me the following link this week on Coffin Shelves: Furniture for Life (and Death).

Coffin Shelves for Life

I am a total believer in multi-use coffins.

Death + the Economy Death Ethics

Funeral Home Moves, Forgets Corpse in Casket

A woman dead for several years traveled with a relocating funeral home around San Antonio, Texas, as the undertaker awaited payment from an indigent family. The last time Forest Park Funeral Home moved, the body was left behind in a shed. New reports suggest she was supposed to be cremated in 2006.