Death + Technology Death + the Economy Funeral Industry

Coffin Making: Now with Barcodes and Touch Screens

Bringing the Coffin Industry Back From the Dead
How barcodes and touch screens are resuscitating a casket factory
Ben Austen, The Atlantic (December 2010)

Modern, industrial casket making is a manufacturing business like any other, but for the fact that most people never think about modern, industrial casket making. The above article in The Atlantic does an excellent job of capturing how American casket making has become a largely automated industry, similar to the auto business.

This article is also about changes to the American labor force but in a decidedly niche business. It turns out that the American casket industry is suffering from many of the same problems faced by manufacturers all across the country. You can read about many of those death and dead body industries in the Death + the Economy section.

Out of curiosity, I went to YouTube to look for casket/coffin making videos and found the following vintage 1970s film. The YouTube video is actually instructive because it shows how the casket industry used to manufacture caskets before the introduction of the automation technologies.

Burial Death + Popular Culture Death + Technology Death Ethics Eco-Death

Prepare for Death and Follow Me…into Outer Space

Death In Space
Mary Roach, Boing Boing (September 02, 2010)

Wherever living humans go, the possibility of dead human bodies follows. It is the fullest expression of mortality’s inherent fragility.

So, when humans finally travel into space for extended periods of time without the luxury of a quickish return to Earth, dead body contingencies need to be thought through.This is especially true for any eventual trips to Mars, which may or may not involve establishing colonies.

Here’s the rub: NASA does not appear to have plans on what to do if an astronaut dies during a mission. Or the plans, if they exist, are not available to the public. I came across some news articles on this apparent planning gap, and it appears that NASA planners haven’t really taken seriously the possibility of an astronaut’s death during an extended voyage or what to do with a dead body during a mission.

This is not a minor point. Returning the dead body and its remnants to next of kin is standard procedure for US governmental operations; NASA space missions are no different. Yet during long or arduous expeditions dead bodies are often left behind, if for any reason, bringing the corpse back is too difficult and/or actually endangers fellow team members. Climbers who die on Mt. Everest are routinely left behind where they fall, not out of malice but out of necessity.

Enter into all of this, then, Mary Roach. Many of you will know Roach from her books Stiff, Spook, and Boink. She has also just written a new book entitled Packing for Mars, on exploring the red planet. Earlier this month, she wrote a short piece for Boing Boing about death in space and what might be done with a dead body. Oddly, Mary Roach’s work has popped up in a few different places the last few weeks.

Here is the lead from Mary Roach’s essay for Boing Boing:

The U.S. has plans for a manned visit to Mars by the mid-2030s. The ESA and Russia have sketched out a similar joint mission, and it is claimed that China’s space program has the same objective. Apart from their destination, all these plans share something in common: extraordinary danger for the explorers. What happens if someone dies out there, months away from Earth?

Roach discusses a plan developed by the Swedish environmentalist/burial innovator Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and collaborator Peter Mäsak. Many readers of Stiff will remember Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and her innovation called Promession. In a nutshell, the proposed system would reduce the dead body’s size and volume, thereby making it simpler to transport back to Earth. The full proposal (which is being developed with NASA) should be read to fully glean how this system would work.

What Wiigh-Mäsak and NASA are proposing is fine…but leaving the body in space would still be simpler. Indeed, the main reason to keep a body on hand after death would be for a postmortem examination to determine the Cause of Death and to see if the other astronauts were at risk for some previously unknown pathogen. That said, if an autopsy is not possible because of weaker gravitational pull and/or after a successful postmortem exam takes place, then the body is best given a respectful burial in space. I would rather see NASA develop plans for final disposition in space than a spaceship’s crew trying to make room for a dead colleague.

Besides, I have a hunch that any person who dies in space will probably want to stay in the ether.

Per usual, science fiction has already offered up one example of what a proper burial in outer space could resemble (see the vid at top).

Cemeteries Death + Humor Death + Popular Culture

Cemeteries: More than Just Gloom and Doom

To Attract Future Customers, Cemeteries Hold Parties to Die For
Graveyards Plan Concerts, Sky-Diving, Clowns; ‘Meet Us Before You Need Us’
Araby Williams, Wall Street Journal Multimedia Producer and
Stephanie Simon, The Wall Street Journal (August 12, 2010)

The Wall Street Journal ran this short video on cemeteries working to attract a wider audience. This isn’t a new phenomena. The Hollywood Forever cemetery in Hollywood, CA (whose website doesn’t seem to be working…) started showing films on the sides of mausoleums back in the 1990s.

In an odd twist, using cemeteries for more public events is actually in keeping with their 19th century conception.

The WSJ video does a good job of discussing these points.

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 + the Economy Death + the Law

Home Funerals (clap clap clap) Deep in the Heart of Texas

Meeting Offers Information on Home Funerals
Jeffrey Weiss, The Dallas Morning News (April 12, 2010)

When the Death Reference Desk formally launched in the summer of 2009, it became clear that economic issues related to death and dying would continually pop up. Earlier this week, The Dallas Morning News ran an article on home funerals which echoes a July article on the same subject in the New York Times.

And the Death + the Economy section of Death Ref contains a wide array of related articles.

In a nutshell, all of the articles on home funerals explain that many people are interested in taking care of the dead body (without the assistance of a funeral director) because it is cheaper. While that’s true, and I am the first to say that funerals are too expensive, I’m not so sure that money is a huge force behind the interest in home funerals. From what I can gather, it seems as if the people exploring the idea of a home funeral are middle income earners and higher and that the interested parties want a more personal service. This all makes sense too. Indeed, the return of home funerals isn’t so much an innovation as a throwback to 19th century funeral practices. This is a historical point often missed by reporters working the home funeral beat.

The article sums up the Texas home burial workshop this way:

But why would someone want to take charge of his own funeral? The most obvious reason is price. Depending on how much of the preparation is done at home, the family could save thousands of dollars. But there are emotional reasons as well, Bates said.

His mother died in 2000 in Arlington. And while a funeral home dealt with much of the preparation, the family wanted her buried where she grew up, in Tulia. So they rented a van, put the coffin in the back and stopped at places along the way where she had visited.

“It was good for all of us,” Bates said.

So there you have it. A nice combination of funeral thrift and personalized memorialization. In the event that combination seems too poigant here is a predictably over-the-top CNN video about a graveyard offering a buy-one-get-the-second-grave-for-50%-off sale. The classy title sums it up.

CNN: “Sometimes you gotta think outside the box”

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.

Death + Technology Death + the Web Funeral Industry

TiVo Grief with Funeral Webcasting

Funeral Webcasting – Can’t Attend a Memorial Service?

via The Consumerist, “Now You Can Attend Funerals Live Over the Internet”

Laura Northrup at the Consumerist recently blogged about funeral webcasting with this video from Chris Hill at Weirdly, the vid seems aimed at those in need of services for loved ones while the accompanying webpage is targeted at funeral directors (i.e., getting a funeral home set up with “Pre-Screened and Qualified™ Preferred Providers” — yes, that is actually their trademark).

Anyway, reasons for being unable to attend a funeral include being poor, old, sick or riffraff:

Specific details are scarce — I imagine it depends on the local Pre-Screened and Qualified™ Preferred Providers. Nonetheless, it seems to target those who don’t really understand how the internet works (you can watch it anywhere! even the library!). I also frown that he emphasizes that services are archived up to 90 days as though that’s a bonus and not a ripoff — you can be sure for an extra fee you can extend your access to final farewells if not purchase a DVD.

Cynicism aside, this is not a bad idea, at least for those physically unable to make it to a funeral. When it’s used as a tool of convenience, however — or as an excuse to not need to put aside differences and invite the family baddies and black sheep — the idea turns crass and cold. Funerals are about gathering and remembering together — not about watching other people gather and remember on the internet, whenever you happen to find the time to tune in and grieve.

Death + Popular Culture

Mock Funerals: Performances for Protest, Satire and Social Change

While specific rites and rituals vary across cultures and time, anyone who has been to a few memorial services or even seen them on TV understands funerals. We may not know how to feel about death or the deceased, but we do know how we’re supposed to act.

A funeral, after all, is a performance — and I don’t mean that snidely. There are common and expected settings, props and costumes, with overlapping scenes but well-defined acts. We have roles to play and lines to say and even when we screw up (can’t stop crying! ack, can’t start!), we don’t. Funerals are flexible. Flubs are forgiven. Things mean Stuff, and if all goes as planned, including the unplanned, people walk away changed.

Because we all “get” funerals and know what we’re supposed to get out of them, it’s no small wonder the funeral performance has been subverted and co-opted as a means of social commentary and to express and influence public opinion. Mock funerals have been used throughout history as vehicles for satire, issue awareness, protest and social change.

On November 14, the citizens of Venice held a mock funeral for their city and its dying population, currently below 60,000. The 1993 total was a healthier 74,000; in 1971, the city topped 108,300. The mock funeral on Saturday was an effort to promote awareness of the problem and invigorate Venetian pride.

Take it away, Al Jazeera!

The day before, copping the same culturally understood form, students at Florida State University held a funeral for gay rights and marriage equality complete with a eulogy, funeral procession and mock burial with opening and closing remarks. The demonstration was in reaction to the recent overturn of gay marriage rights in Maine.

Lastly, just before Halloween, a sports bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin, working with a radio station, erected a coffin containing a Brett Favre effigy, encapsulating the “he’s dead to us” emotion Packer fans have felt after quarterback Favre temporarily quit the NFL then signed on with the neighboring arch nemesis, the Vikings. The initial spectacle attracted 500 mourners for the procession, including hearses and pall-bearers, while others came to view the “corpse” over the next couple of days, on display in the corner of the bar.

Mean spirited? Um… yes? The radio station allegedly received death threats for the incident. But satire-too-far aside, as well as the abiding silliness of the whole thing, devoted Packer fans have felt genuine sadness, loss and betrayal about Favre’s defection. Some mourners brought pictures, football cards, and other mementos to place inside the coffin. It’s all part of the gag, but it’s also a familiar way to deal with grief and work through the frustration and pain of someone who is dead — or someone who you wished was, or who feels dead to you anyway.

These three examples are just within the last few weeks; numerous other instances exist, such as mock funerals for the First Amendment or symbolic funerals for aborted fetuses (this latter being slightly different in tone, though still enacted as a form of protest and demonstration). Though varying in intention, mock funerals invariably capture attention, sometimes shockingly. Death as metaphor is one thing; to see it enacted and performed can be moving, disturbing or even infuriating — and because of our cultural familiarity, it works. It’s easy to know what’s going on and how we’re supposed to feel about it — even if we disagree with the issue of contention.

I hoped to do more research on this, to get some historical context and cultural studies input. I found next to nothing on this topic, which surprises me. “Mock funeral” doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page (gasp!). Please comment if you know of any books or articles about this — or give me a grant or book advance and I’ll get right on it.

Burial Death + Popular Culture Defying Death

Dead Man Walking….Into His Own Funeral


Dead wrong: Man attends own funeral after mix-up over body’s ID

On the holiday known as the Day of the Dead, a Brazilian bricklayer walked into his own funeral.

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: So a guy walks into his own funeral… but apparently it wasn’t so funny for the friends and relatives of Ademir Jorge Goncalves. You see, Mr. Goncalves had been presumed and identified as dead. As it turns out, it was all just a case of mistaken identity. Ha ha!

This isn’t the first time the deceased will attend his or her own funeral—nor will it probably be the last. Take the case of the late Leonard Shlain. After Mr. Shlain’s green burial in northern California earlier this year, a film was shown, featuring himself in a white suit saying that he’d always wanted to attend his own funeral. Filmed a few months before his death, it gave him a platform to set the tone for the affair—surprising and humorous, but also deeply touching as he reassured his loved ones that he was happy, that he missed them, and felt blessed.

This all got me to thinking—just how many ways are there to attend your own funeral? I found these two flakey chicks doing a video tutorial of sorts on attending your own funeral. The message here seems to be about taking stock of your life and thinking about how you want to be remembered before you die. I really didn’t find this very helpful or uplifting, but perhaps Sarah and Suzi will convince you otherwise.

And then there are tales like this one that involve a massive lie in order to “spare everyone’s feelings.” It seems there are easier ways to ditch your friends, no?

Finally, what about the poor folks who have been interred and buried alive? Also known as premature burial, tales of being buried alive have been found across cultures and time. Some of my favorite stories growing up were Poe’s The Telltale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado. O.K., technically, you are not actually attending your own funeral—just your own burial. But this seems like the worst of all possible ways to go. If anyone has any other ideas about how one can attend his or her own funeral (or burial) let us know via our comments feature. We’d love to hear from you—dead or alive.

Death + Biology Grief + Mourning

Chimpanzee Funeral?

Behind the Lens: The Grieving Chimps
Jeremy Berlin, National Geographic Blog Central (October 29, 2009)

Fast on the heels of debatably mourning magpies, I offer you the somewhat more definitive (pics and it happened!) chimpanzee funeral, where huddled, sad chimps appear to pay their last respects to their dead companion Dorothy.

Photograph by Monica Szczupider

Of course the “funeral” and burial part was enacted by humans. But the photo is touching and striking nonetheless. From the National Geographic blog:

Szczupider, who had been a volunteer at the center, told me: “Her presence, and loss, was palpable, and resonated throughout the group. The management at Sanaga-Yong opted to let Dorothy’s chimpanzee family witness her burial, so that perhaps they would understand, in their own capacity, that Dorothy would not return. Some chimps displayed aggression while others barked in frustration. But perhaps the most stunning reaction was a recurring, almost tangible silence. If one knows chimpanzees, then one knows that [they] are not [usually] silent creatures.”

Burial Monuments + Memorials

Poe’s Funeral Draws Hundreds

Edgar Allan Poe Finally Getting Proper Funeral
Ben Nuckols, Associated Press (October 6, 2009)

The late Edgar Allan Poe had a memorial service Sunday, October 11, in Baltimore, Maryland. Yes, that late Edgar Allan Poe—the beloved American writer of the macabre who has been dead for 160 years.

Hundreds of mourners in period dress, including Alfred Hitchcock and H.P. Lovecraft impersonators, paid their respects to the man whose first funeral, following his mysterious death in 1849, fetched only a handful of attendees. The memorial service Sunday — there were two, actually, to accommodate all the mourners — was one of many events celebrating his 200th birthday.

To see some footage of the Poe replica and procession, including some retro morphing effects in the ABC video, check out the links below (it seems to be popular lately to disable embedded video… jerks).

160 Years After Mysterious Death, Edgar Allan Poe Gets Proper Funeral (ABC)

Second Send-off for US Writer Poe (BBC)

Edgar Allan Poe’s Final Send Off (Reuters)

At the beginning of the ABC video, I twice saw an ad for a mouse trap — count yourself lucky if you watch it, too: “Nothing to see, nothing to touch, you just throw it away.” …Because that’s just how we like our death: disposable.