The Death of the Funeral Business

The wheels are coming off the funeral business as God takes a backseat to online memorials, Facebook messages and “life celebrations.” How we’re blurring the line between life and the grave.

It makes sense, once you decide the body doesn’t much matter, to have it go up in flames. Fire is spirit; it’s electricity; it’s energy. It’s what we plug our phones and iPads into. It’s the exact opposite of stasis and rot.

Not everybody is a fan of cremation, though. As I’m about to leave the Pennsylvania Burial Co., Peter and Victor introduce me to a big, burly guy in jeans and a work shirt who’s striding in through the front door: “This is our embalmer, Michael.”

From what I’ve read about the embalming process, I’m expecting Gollum, not a dead ringer for James Gandolfini. Michael clasps my hand in a grip like the grave. “Are you really the embalmer?” I ask dubiously.

“The last person to see you naked!” he booms, and grins.

Peter and Victor are appalled: “Don’t say that!” But I laugh; his high spirits are contagious. If I’m going to have my body suctioned out, let it be by this cheery guy.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the number of U.S. embalmers has fallen by half since 2005. That makes Michael an endangered species. In the new age of everlasting online life, who’s going to fork over the big bucks to be entombed?

Victor and Peter will. “We’re both going to be buried,” Victor says stoutly. “In the family plot. I want to be buried there with my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. But not till a long ways off.”

So will Janet Monge—“But not so I can be resurrected. I want to be dug up. I think that would be the coolest thing.”

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  • MystiKasT

    well blacks are sending us all to our graves a little earlier than we’d like

  • Jim Black

    I’ll are wrestle you on Christmas Eve for that spot on top of Aunt Mildred!

  • lindab2

    Totally agree with this article, but I have to share what my 98 year old mother said about funerals — hers, in particular. “I don’t want a ‘memorial” — I don’t want a ‘celebration of my life’ for god’s sake. I want people to cry!!”

  • RuthAnnHarnisch

    I’m a member of the Infinity Burial Project. Jae Rhim Lee has designed what Stephen Colbert called “The ‘Shroom Tomb,” a biodegradable suit impregnated with toxin-mitigating mushroom spores. We can decompose and detox the earth at the same time! I wonder if I can combine that with a donation of my corpse to the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee where the study of decomposition aids in forensic science.

  • Apotopaic

    One factual error: dead bodies do not cause disease. Common misconception, unfortunately, that has led to mass graves after disasters.

  • Lee Calhoon

    And I love what Johnny Carson said about how he wanted to be buried…he said, “when I die I want to be freeze dried and pounded into the ground with a mallet”

  • RealityTeeVee

    That funeral home chick on Mob Wives from Philly will probably do them in.

  • Tizzielish

    A way to perk up the funeral biz is to have second lines, as they do in New Orleans. Gigs for musicians, community building, celebrating the deceased’s life through joyful singing and dancing. why not?

  • BT Hathaway

    Hi Sandy, congrats on the Marketplace interview. I caught the tail end of your talk with Kai last night. I’m a 4th generation funeral director who is facing 60% cremation rather than the 6% of your friends from Philly. At my rates, the entire business model starts to break down and your title becomes quite apt. I expect we will see (particularly in the northeast) a dramatic decline in the number of funeral homes in the years ahead.

    So now we need to find ways to address modern cremation which I see as detached and industrial. There’s nothing comforting about a generic serial number and an ugly black plastic box, so I’ve started something called MemryStone, ceramic markers which survivors inscribe with a message and send through the cremation process. The markers return with the final remains and provide a personal form of identity confirmation and a touchstone for love and memory. Molded by hand in SE Massachusetts and available to anyone across the country.

  • Tom Wiggins

    Everybody wants to go to Heaven, just nobody wants to go Today :))

  • Heritage Funeral Home

    It is misleading to compare an $8,300 funeral (not including plot) with a $1,400 cremation (with urn and no service). Cremation is simply an alternative form of disposition. A family can still have an $8,300 funeral and then either pay for the crematory charge or for the cemetery charge. Cremation does not preclude a wake or other services. Too many times, families think that they HAVE to have a direct cremation and that they are not allowed to have a wake – which of course is not true. Cremation is simply a more affordable form of disposition,

  • Jeff Harbeson

    Brilliant and well written piece. The funeral industry as a whole is still conducting business like they did 10 years or more ago. However, consumers are shifting in their views of death, religion and certainly the economy has forced many to make funeral arrangements with their pocketbook, not their heart. Smart providers, such as the firm profiled here, are changing their operations to meet the consumer demand.