Death + the Economy Death + the Law Funeral Industry

Live Free or Die…in a Hand Crafted Benedictine Monk Casket

St. Joseph Abbey’s Monks Battle State Funeral Industry Regulators for Right to Sell Caskets
Ramon Antonio Vargas, The Times-Picayune (August 13, 2010)

One of the lesser-known classic blunders is trying to prevent jovial Benedictine monks, living peacefully in their Louisiana monastery, from selling hand made wooden caskets to the general public. Not unlike starting a land war in Asia or a battle of wits with a Sicilian. Stated simply, the odds aren’t that good.


So it goes that the monks of the Saint Joseph Abbey of St. Benedict were ordered by the state to cease and desist selling their hand crafted caskets to the good people of Louisiana. Why is this you might ask? Well, Louisiana laws stipulates that only ‘funeral establishments’ can sell ‘funeral merchandise’ such as caskets.

And here is that law:

Louisiana Revised Statute 37:848
C. It shall be unlawful for anyone to engage in the business of funeral directing or embalming as defined in R.S. 37:831 unless such business is conducted by a duly licensed funeral establishment.

But what does that mean? Well, let us look at RS 37:831 for clarity:

Louisiana Revised Statute 37:831
(37) “Funeral directing” means the operation of a funeral home, or, by way of illustration and not limitation, any service whatsoever connected with the management of funerals, or the supervision of hearses or funeral cars, the purchase of caskets or other funeral merchandise, and retail sale and display thereof, the cleaning or dressing of dead human bodies for burial, and the performance or supervision of any service or act connected with the management of funerals from time of death until the body or bodies are delivered to the cemetery, crematory, or other agent for the purpose of disposition.

The problem with this law is that it seems to contradict the US Federal Trade Commission’s oversight of the funeral industry, usually just referred to as the Funeral Rule. The second article at the top of the page is the first one that I have seen which highlights this problem.

There is a lot of history as to how and why the Funeral Rule (which most people don’t know exists) came into being. In a nutshell, the Funeral Rule states what a consumer’s legal rights are when paying for a funeral. The FTC helpfully publishes Paying Final Respects: Your Rights When Buying Funeral Goods & Services which is the law, literally, for the American funeral industry.

This all brings me back to the Saint Joseph Abbey monks because FTC rules clearly state that any person can:

Provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you purchase elsewhere. The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.

So unless I’m missing something (and I could be) it appears that Louisiana state law is trying to supersede federal law and that, generally, is frowned upon by the US Courts. Indeed, the general wisdom on ‘third-party casket sales’ is that consumers have every right to purchase these funeral goods without hindrance and that a funeral home cannot refuse to use said third-party casket. Coincidentally, the August-September issue of International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association Magazine (one of my favorites…) has a lengthy discussion on using third-party caskets, such as the ones made by the monks.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: AHA!!!! But these monks are not consumers they are producers of caskets and therefore not covered by the FTC Funeral Rule. This is correct but still a problem because the general public is being denied its federally backed right to purchase these caskets.

In my reading of the FTC Funeral Rule, the state of Louisiana cannot dictate whom the public buys caskets from and, as such, cannot control what constitutes a legitimate casket maker. Or, at least, can’t say that the St. Joseph Abbey monks have to be a ‘funeral home’ in order to sell their caskets.

All of this, then, brings me to the Institute for Justice, a Washington, DC based, capital ‘L’ for Libertarian, public interest law firm. The IJ is representing the monks in their court case against the state of Louisiana and presenting the case as a total violation of the monks’ Constitutional rights. What I’m not clear on is why the IJ isn’t just making the easier point about the FTC rules.

Unless, of course, the Institute for Justice doesn’t really care for the Federal Trade Commission, which would make sense given its Libertarian ethos.

Don’t get me wrong– I love the Libertarians. As a group, the Libertarians equally antagonize most American political parties and that is always good to see.

I just wonder if the video that the IJ produced on behalf of the monks (please see below) is a little more, ummm, over-the-top than it needs to be? Rarely do I have trouble distinguishing between an old Saturday Night Live commercial and an actual advocacy ad but this one comes close.

Besides, the state of Louisiana is going to lose this case. A few weeks ago, Meg posted a piece on Casket Company Trust Busting currently going on in America and it is clear that unfair business practices are on the funeral industry radar.

Don’t pick on the monks Louisiana. You aren’t just messing with some jovial band of Benedictines. Oh no. You are staring into the steely, cold gaze of the Libertarians…

Death + the Law Funeral Industry

Casket Trust-busting on the Horizon?

Consumer Advocates Want More Competition in Casket Market
April Dembosky, Marketplace (August 2, 2010)

American Public Media’s Marketplace has a short radio segment about a consumer advocacy group suing the three major casket companies for monopolizing the market. A federal judge will decide later this week whether the companies’ distribution policy of selling caskets to anyone but delivering them only to funeral homes creates an unfair market for competition and consumers who want more choice.

A possible word slip by a casket company official may be indicative of the industry’s attitude. From the transcript:

Mark Allen from the Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America insists there’s plenty of competition in his industry. “I’m contacted every week by a new upstart company that’s trying to get some advice for getting started in this industry.”

A new “upstart” company? Doesn’t he mean “startup”? So much for downplaying hostility.

Death + Popular Culture Death + the Web Funeral Industry

Alas, King Elvis’ Embalming Instruments are Still Dead

Auction House Drops Elvis Embalming Tools
Andy Grimm, Chicago Tribune (July 23, 2010)

I know for a fact that many people saw last week’s news item about the instruments used to embalm Elvis Presley going up for sale. I know this because many people (including my Mom…) e-mailed me the story. What I think most people missed was the announcement a few days later that the same sale had been called off. It’s true. The Presley embalming gear will not be auctioned in August.

At the top of this post you will find a Chicago Tribune article announcing the sale’s cancellation as well as a statement by the auction house, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, on what happened.

Ooooohhhhhh the intrigue.


images_managed_press_elvis_toolsHere is a sampling of the items from the defunct sale: forceps, needle injectors, aneurysm hooks, an arterial tube, lip brushes (for makeup), rubber gloves, a comb, eye liner, and a toe tag.

I’ve even included a photo of some of the gear.

Most people commented on the sale this way: “Gross.”

I, however, had an entirely different reaction. Since I am a Death Studies Professional my first thought was “No way. It’s fake.” There is absolutely no way to prove the provenance and authenticity of this embalming equipment (short of DNA traces, if that’s even possible) since everything listed could be bought from any embalming supply company. Some written materials were also included in the sale but I did not see any images of the documents.

And, lo, it turns out that the authenticity of said embalming instruments became an issue after the initial news story drop. As a result, the auction house could do nothing but pull the sale.

There is another angle on this entire debacle. It turns out that the Memphis, TN funeral home which questioned the authenticity of the instruments is owned by the Texas based Service Corporation International (SCI).

That’s an interesting twist.

SCI is an ENORMOUS funeral industry conglomerate and it owns funeral homes all over the world. I have to imagine that once SCI HQ heard about the sale it decided to take a looky loo at the situation and, indeed, SCI released the following statement:

“We feel the sale of these items is entirely inappropriate…Their removal and subsequent submission for auction are inconsistent with our policies and our commitment to all families we serve to treat the loved ones in our care — be they celebrities or not — with privacy, dignity and respect.”

I’ll take SCI at its word that the privacy, dignity, and respect of the Presley family is important but I also think that SCI wanted to hang onto this property. If these embalming tools are authentic (which I still doubt) then it’s the kind of thing any corporation wants in its private holdings.

Interesting enough, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers pulled the original sale announcement off its website. You can that here. Our good friends at BoingBoing, however, still have that posting up.

So there you have it. Buyer beware. Especially when dealing with run-of-the-mill embalming equipment.

Death + Popular Culture Funeral Industry Monuments + Memorials

Plain or Fancy?

Seems like funerals or memorial services are either getting simpler or more complex these days. Green burials and simple home rituals are gaining momentum, but so are high end funeral extravaganzas that spare no expense. In an article that appeared in yesterday’s U.K.-based Independent newspaper, “the rise of the distinctly unconventional celebrity send-off is proof of a distinct shift in British attitudes to the final journey of the dead.”

Enter Lori MacKellar, who has been labeled a “celebrity undertaker”. Ms. MacKellar, a former contemporary art publicist, has been responsible for some of the recent funerary fetes of British celebs and luminaries such as Malcolm McLaren (punk rock visionary) and Michael Wojas (legendary barman). While she takes umbrage with such a title, Ms. MacKellar sees herself as performing a very important role in the the creation of lasting memories for the deceased family and friends. As she puts it:

“The departure point is always what the family want to do. In the case of Malcolm McLaren, the family had very clear ideas about what sort of funeral they wanted and we helped to arrange it. The bus was provided by a friend and there were so many ways that people were able to express themselves. We were a little bit worried that at one point some fans might give the ‘punk salute’ by spitting towards the hearse. Of course, that never happened and people were also very respectful. I think the family were pleased with how it went.

If Michael Jackson’s memorial service here stateside is any indication of the lengths the rich and famous will go to to ensure a lasting legacy for time immemorial, then I’m not sure what is. The entire city of Los Angeles was practically shut down last July on the day of the memorial service at the Staples Center. The city racked up (and was criticized for) $1.3 million dollars in expenses on that day to pay all the associated costs of such a large event, including but not limited to, police officers, sanitation workers and traffic control. A few weeks ago, nearing the one year anniversary of MJ’s death, Anschutz Entertainment Group and the estate of Michael Jackson have agreed to provide $1.3 million to the city of Los Angeles to help cover the cost of last year’s memorial.

Ultimately, a funeral or memorial service is a reflection of the life of the deceased. So whether plain or fancy, the ways in which we honor, celebrate and remember the dead is really a mirror on our collective values and ideologies. What will YOUR memorial or funeral say about you?

Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Funeral Industry

Digital Death Day! (Is Every Day)

Virtual Life after Death
Peregrine Andrews, BBC News (May 22, 2010)

Last week, May 20th, was the first Digital Death Day, an unconference in California of funeral directors, digital identity professionals, attorneys, technologists, entrepreneurs and obituary enthusiasts to share concerns and probably a few crazy-interesting ideas about managing digital identity after death.

Despite DeathRef being followed by digitaldeathday on May 4th, I have been sucked into the void of Other Responsibilities and neglected to pay attention until, oh, May 20th, as the unconference was actually happening. Bad librarian! Suffice it to say, it looked pretty darn cool. It appears that notes, podcasts and such are still being compiled. We’ll link them once they’re up. In the meantime,

The BBC also gets in on the action (article linked above), discussing the issue of digital assets such as domain names, sponsored Twitter accounts and virtual property in online games, as well as memorizing at social networking sites, or otherwise continued online engagement with the person’s profile, as though the person weren’t dead at all. This practice has been criticized as prolonging the grieving process, though others argue that it merely facilitates it.

Good stuff. As this post title suggests, Every Day is Digital Death Day — we’ll keep vigilant for what else emerges from the unconference and, of course, elsewhere on this topic.

Cemeteries cremation Funeral Industry

Humans and Pets Cremating Together

Cremation Association of North America (CANA) and International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAOPCC) Announce new Guidelines for Pet Cremation
Press Release, March 2010

Pet cremation is big business for human funeral homes looking to branch out into other industries. And normally I wouldn’t just trot out a press release for a Death Reference Desk post but this newly announce initiative about human and pet cremation groups coming together to produce guidelines really intrigued me.

Chicago, IL – The Cremation Association of North America (CANA), an international organization composed of cremationists, funeral directors, cemeterians, industry suppliers and consultants, and the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, an international organization recognized as the authority in the pet aftercare industry, have been working together to develop industry guidelines for pet cremation practices.

The Press Release has two quote from each organization:

“There has been significant growth in pet cremation over that past ten years as families seek ways to appropriately memorialize a cherished pet,” said IAOPCC President Scott Hunter, “and at the same time owners want reassurance that the cremation facilities they use provide high quality services for their pets. By working with the Cremation Association of North America, we seek to establish standard industry terminology and practices for the proper respectful care of pets in memorial services.”


CANA President Bill McQueen noted, “As the premiere organization focused on all aspects of cremation service, CANA has been pleased to work with the IAOPCC to extend our knowledge and experience into developing broad-based guidelines for pet cremation. CANA’s highly regarded crematory operator certification program and model laws for cremation have significant application to practices in pet memorialization. CANA takes pride in being the cremation solutions community and is pleased to work with IAOPCC to extend the reach of our community.”

So there you have it. Pet Cremations and Human Cremations will finally find common ground. And new terms will be invented too. That’s even better.

Actually, I totally support pet cremation and I think that people should handle the death of a pet as they see fit. The death of a pet can be more heart braking than the death of a human relative. My only concern is that these new agreed upon standards don’t create higher prices. That seems to happen too.

Burial Funeral Industry

Washing the Dead for Jewish Funerals

Jewish Burial Practices
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly, PBS (February 6th, 2004)

Last week on the Death Reference Desk I wrote about American Muslims washing the dead body before a funeral. A friend from graduate school, Jakki, saw the post and sent me a fantastic PBS segment on the Jewish tradition of washing the dead. Jakki summed up postmortem body washing for both Islam and Judaism this way: “Jews do the same (another example of our common heritage).” And she is absolutely correct. Indeed, of the three Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) it is the Christian Church which has moved the furthest away from washing the dead body. There are many, many historical reasons for the move away from body washing and I have a hunch that the practice might return.

Until that time, however, the contemporary practice of corpse washing falls mostly to Muslims and Jews. Check out the video linked above, and as with last week’s Muslim body washing post, note the combination of both traditional prayer and public health required protective gear.

Happy Passover to one and all.

Cemeteries Death + Humor Funeral Industry

Elephants? No. Leashed Dogs? Check.

No Camels, Er, Unleashed Dogs Allowed in Cemetery
Katie Mercer, The Province (March 25, 2010)

This is normally the sort of story I’d tweet, but after my columbaria tour one sweltering Vancouver Saturday, I have a soft spot in my heart for Mountain View Cemetery. In an effort to get visitors to actually read (and hopefully heed) a sign, the City of Vancouver got silly:

No elephants.
No camels.
No dogs without leashes.
Dogs with leashes = OK.

According to the Province article,

“I hope the ‘no elephants’ policy provides a gentle reminder to others to keep the leash on their dogs,” [cemetery manager Glen Hodges] added.

The cemetery is the only one in the Lower Mainland that officially allows dogs on their grounds.

Hmm, I wonder about leashed camels…

The sign was designed by cemetery booster and civic historian John Atkin, who in small-world coincidental fashion was my tour guide last summer. For those in Vancouver he recommends an upcoming, day-long forum at Mountain View on April 24: The Final Disposition: De-Mystifying Death, Funerals, Cemeteries & Ceremonies. From the cemetery’s homepage:

A forum designed to address practical and philosophical matters on dying and death. Discussion begins with hospice care and continues with the role of funeral homes and cemeteries. Alternative options such as green burial and the importance of ritual and ceremony will end the day.

Wish I were there!

Funeral Industry

“From Guns to Our Guest,” Warns Funeral Home Billboard

Funeral Director’s Billboards: “Don’t End Up Here”
Elizabeth Schubert , 13WHAM, Rochester, New York (March 26, 2010)

A funeral director in Rochester, New York, counteracts the community sadness and frustration of clients brought to his services through violence with a series of billboards in English and Spanish. The message couldn’t be more direct: “Stop the guns, drugs and violence, or be our next guest.”

From the article,

Hemphill put up the billboards because he’s tired of violence. “This is the last stop. Either you’re going to be in jail, or you’re going to be in a funeral home. You can be a guest, seeing the friend, or you can be the one laid out.”

Whether actually effective in preventing deaths or gaining customers who are charmed or appreciative of the efforts, such PSA-style PR certainly gets funeral homes attention (see also the similar Don’t Drink and Drive and Don’t Text and Drive campaigns).

Burial Funeral Industry

Washing the Dead for Muslim Funerals

The Washing: In the Muslim Custom of Bathing the Dead, She Found a Deep Sense of Reward — and Shaved off 40 Sins
Reshma Memon Yaqub, The Washington Post (March 21, 2010)

Modern human migration has created a real dilemma for the first, second, and third generations of immigrant children. When a relative dies, many of these young people will be called upon to handle the funeral ceremonies for the deceased. Yet, the individuals involved (most of whom will be adults by that time) don’t have a good idea about what they are supposed to do. What is the current funeral ritual? I have encountered this situation in both America and the United Kingdom. Indeed, funeral directors in both countries explain that children of immigrants often ask the funeral directors (who are thoroughly local) what to do at the funeral. As always, a good funeral director will know the answer.

Over the weekend, The Washington Post ran a first person essay by a Muslim-American woman who was called upon to wash the body of her deceased relative. The article really quite moving. I have to say that this particular essay is one of the most interesting pieces on modern American funerals that I have read in a long time. I was particularly struck by how the author captured the mixing of traditional Muslim postmortem preparations with public health requirements, i.e., the wearing of latex gloves and face shields while washing the deceased.

I was also impressed by Reshma Memon Yaqub’s full on admission that she wasn’t entirely sure what to do but knew that she was supposed to do it.

While I was working on this post, I came across a May 2009 article from The Oregonian, entitled Islam’s ritual of washing the body bestows respect on the dead, and it lists a lot of useful information which anyone interested in global funeral rituals will enjoy reading.

More than anything, these articles point to the following truism: human migration brings cultural changes for both life and death. This is a good thing.

The world would be a much sadder place if all the funerals were the same.

Death + Humor Funeral Industry

Sexy Coffin Calendar Showdown!

Coffin Calendars Are a Sexy Hit
New Poland Express (October 16, 2009)

via Trendhunter Magazine, “Controversial Casket Calendars”

Last October DeathRef tweeted about Italian coffin maker CofaniFunebri, which created a coffin product catalog featuring scantily clad goths. (This did not make the Death Reference Desk proper — while fine with being a sexy goth coffin calendar tweeter, I was reluctant to become a sexy goth coffin calendar blogger.)

Hesitation, begone! This is officially a post-worthy trend, which I initially missed but to which Trendhunter (appropriately enough) just alerted me. Not about to be outdone, Poland’s largest coffin manufacturer, Lindner, came out with its own sexy model, coffin-humping calendar. Hey, guys, don’t you know there’s a crisis going on? And perhaps it’s because of declining casket sales that marketing teams are getting creative (read: skanky) with outreach initiatives.

In response to criticism about the appropriateness of such a venture, the Lindner managing director, Barthosz Linder, says:

I don’t believe that sex alongside death is shocking and offends people who have just lost someone close to them. I produce coffins. I could produce furniture or something else. But I don’t. And this is a good coffin. I decided on such advertising because I wanted people to know about our brand. That’s it.

And about ripping off the Italians? What say you to that, Mr. Lindner?

The idea for this calendar is mine. Although I admit that I was inspired by an Italian calendar. There, a company does the same thing, but I thought, ‘Well, our Polish girls are prettier, and our coffins are better. … So we can do better.’

This is the part where I’d say, “You be the judge!” if I didn’t suspect you had better things to do. But if not, you can check out the full CofaniFunebri calendar here and see teaser pages from the Lindner calendar here, which boasts of “12 beautiful coffins [and] marvelous pictures of 12 beautiful Polish girls in magic landscapes.”

Funeral Industry

Three Feet of Snow Does Not Stop Funeral Directors

Funeral Directors’ Challenge: Death Waits for No Snowstorm
William Wan, The Washington Post (February 12, 2010)

This is a classic news article about two kinds of hot topics: funeral directors and freakish weather events. You put these two things together and WHAMMO, you’re king of the world.

So right now in Washington, DC (which is still digging out from under three feet of snow) local funeral directors are working working working because people keep dying. Indeed, mortality rates tend to go up during heavy snow storms because of accidents and strenuous shoveling. Meanwhile, cold weather and snow forces some cemeteries to close, which in turn forces families (and therefore funeral directors) to scramble when it comes to interment, calling around to find open graveyards or, alternatively, storage facilities until the snow clears. Funeral directors may work around the clock, sleeping at work among the dead–on couches, not in the caskets.

My father the funeral director did all these things (and more) during snow storms in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is just part of being a funeral director: you never stop working because death doesn’t stop.