Over the summer, my 98-year-old Aunt Elizabeth passed away, after a long, full life.
In the wake (heh) of her memorial service, I got a letter from her daughter, my cousin Stephanie. It had a chart of our family’s two burial plots at Hillside Cemetery in Roslyn, showing who’s interred in which graves, and … well, let me just quote:
The original cemetery contract entitles one burial to be made in each grave without additional charge. … This is called the “first right.” But if someone decides to be buried in one of the seven graves that have never yet been opened, and wants to be sure that the burial will be deep enough to allow for a second later burial in the same grave, he/she must pay a fee (currently just under $2,500) to reserve the “second right” to that grave. If the second right is not paid for at the time of the first burial, there will not be room for a second burial in the grave. It follows that if everyone who eventually uses those graves pays up front for the “second right,” the two lots can accommodate 16 more burials. On the other hand, if no one who eventually uses those graves pays for the second right, the two lots will accommodate only nine more burials.
It went on from there.
Mine is a family that takes six months to decide who’ll host the annual Christmas Eve party. The prospect of the dozens of us cousins jockeying for eternal occupancy of those remaining grave sites (“There are also guidelines about burials of spouses of family members”) is dizzying. And frankly, the chances of any of us ponying up $2,500 at our time of death to altruistically save the space atop us are dim. When it comes to that, I love my relatives, but I’d have a hard time opting for the open slot above Aunt Phyllis, who was a wonderful woman but worried ceaselessly about my weight.
Luckily, I don’t envision any grand family smackdowns over the vacant graves. I plan to be cremated. So do my siblings and husband. Forty-three percent of Americans who died last year were burned instead of buried—up from 24 percent in 1998. That’s a staggering rise in the course of just 15 years. (The figure was under five percent as recently as 1972.) By 2017, the Cremation Association of North America predicts, half of us will be consumed by flames. In Britain, three-quarters of the dead already are.
Much of the impetus for this is economic: A traditional American funeral costs $8,300 (not counting plot), vs. $1,400 for cremation (with urn and no service). But what we do with ourselves when we die isn’t just a matter of money, and funerals aren’t just about disposal of the dead. They’re rituals we perform in order to adjust to the loss of a loved one, and to place that loss within a larger framework that gives meaning to the life that’s gone.
For Americans, religion once provided that framework. The rise in cremation dovetails neatly with the increase in those of us who have no religious affiliation—now one-fifth, the highest percentage ever, according to a recent Pew Research poll. We’re not nearly as concerned with the hereafter as we used to be. The number of Americans who don’t believe Christ rose from the dead jumped by 13 percent in a single year from 2012 to 2013.
A societal changeover from burial to cremation is momentous for our culture. It signals a cataclysmic shift in how we think about our bodies and ourselves. If we’re no longer preserving our remains for the glorious moment when the trumpet blares the Resurrection, does it matter what we do with them? What is the meaning of life, and death, once religion goes?
When I die just show clips of me and shut the f up. —Tweet from comedian Albert Brooks, 2013
My mom died while I was in my early 20s; my dad, Bill, lived on for another quarter-century. But it wasn’t until he died and I was going through his things that I found a photo of my mother taken for Dress-Down Day at North Penn High, where she’d taught math. She’s in front of a blackboard, wearing big round glasses and a t-shirt showing the Pythagorean theorem. On the back of the photo, she wrote:
Bill doesn’t like this picture but I love it. It’s my favorite “Marcie, the teacher” picture. I would like my grandchildren (?) to have copies one day.
Mom got her wish; her grandkids all have copies of that photo, and since they never knew her, it’s precisely how they “remember” her. Contemporary funerals are like that picture—they’re not about life after death, but about how we want to be remembered, or at least (since the dead can’t control the living) how our loved ones want us to be.
That explains why the Verizon guy is tramping across the handsome floral carpet in the mirror-walled front lobby of the Pennsylvania Burial Co. “We’re in a traditional area,” says fourth-generation funeral director Peter Jacovini, by which he means South Philly, and more specifically the funeral-home-dense stretch of South Broad Street between Wharton and Oregon. The Pennsylvania Burial Co., at Broad and Reed, is built like—well, a vault. “The walls are so thick that we can’t get wi-fi in our parlors,” says Peter’s cousin, Victor Baldi III—also a fourth-generation funeral director, at the adjacent Baldi Funeral Home. So this bastion of tradition, this crystal-and-marble temple, is putting in more routers, for beaming out videos.
“Video makes it a life celebration,” explains Victor, a handsome, beefy Italian guy. And who doesn’t like to celebrate?
“People have so many pictures now—on their laptops, their phones,” adds Peter, who’s more ascetic in appearance. The home’s chapels have been fitted with discreet flat-screen TVs, for showing collages and tributes; prayer cards bear photos of the deceased instead of images of Christ. Victor just had a family that wanted to livestream a funeral service overseas.
The cousins’ old-school business is making other concessions to changing tastes. They’re about to go, um, live with a new website that’s “more interactive and friendlier,” says Victor. “Families can have a memorial online. Visitors can add messages and condolences.” Granted, such newfangled stuff has to be broached delicately here in traditional South Philly. “Some people don’t want their pictures online,” says Victor. But he and Peter recently hired their first-ever female staffer, a grief counselor. (“She’s been well received,” Peter says, sounding a little surprised.)
It’s all part of the biggest trend in funerals: personalization. Taking a cue from Oprah, who reportedly has planned her own funeral, contemporary mourners are trying to make the worn outlines of ritual more authentic and meaningful. We’re singing “My Heart Will Go On” at services, and showing montages of our deceased’s school days, weddings, grandkids. We’re having their cremains shot into space, made into diamonds and interred in coral reefs. The newest disposal method: dissolving the body via alkaline hydrolysis. The resultant liquid washes right down the drain.
Rituals evolve. What stays constant is our need for them, for some way to make sense of the hole in the social fabric that death creates. “While the types of services we offer are changing, our job has remained the same,” say Peter. “People always told stories. We are always remembering who the people were.”
For Victor and Peter’s clients, remembrance is still intimately tied up, mostly, with the body; cremations sans services are still only six percent of their business. “We can be the nicest guys in the world,” says Victor, “but if Mom or Dad doesn’t look good in the casket …
It really helps the family if the deceased looks peaceful.” This explains the pillowy satin linings of the coffins in their Casket Room, where models range from a $650 bare-bones box to a $17,950 bronze number so gorgeous that I’m tempted to climb in.
There’s no sense having a coffin that nice unless people see it—and the body inside it. Almost all of Peter and Victor’s funerals are open-casket. Peter says, “We have a gentleman who does the embalming”—a process in which the deceased is drenched in disinfectant and germicide, the eyes and jaw are fastened shut, blood is drained, the insides of organs are suctioned out, and makeup is used to restore a lifelike look to the corpse.
The embalming, the cosmetics, the cozy casket confines—all are meant to create a therapeutic “memory image” of the deceased that gives mourners closure. Yet even in South Philly, the business is changing. That’s partly due to the recession; Peter and Victor offer more choices now at the low end of the price scale, and a wall of sample urns in the Casket Room for those opting to cremate. On the second floor is a Buddhist chapel, with a special exhaust system to handle the incense monks burn at their ceremonies. “We’re 80 percent Catholic, 15 percent Buddhist and five percent other,” Victor says as he ushers me into this exotic red-and-gold sanctuary.
Statewide, the number of licensed funeral directors dropped by almost 19 percent from 2001 to 2011. Half a dozen funeral homes in Philadelphia have closed in recent years. “Urban homes have their own challenges,” says John Eirkson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association. “Parking is harder. Getting around is harder. There are tax issues. Everything is compounded when you’re in the city.” The funeral-home mergers-and-acquisitions consolidation that started out West is hitting the East Coast now. South Philly, once solidly white, Catholic and Italian, today is nearly half black, Asian and Hispanic. And Eirkson has seen dramatic changes in mortuary-school enrollment. “Classes used to be made up of men from funeral-home families,” he says. “Now, women make up 60 percent or more, and the majority aren’t affiliated with funeral-home families.” Small family-owned homes, Eirkson says, “have to adapt—or die.”
But the Pennsylvania Burial Co. is plenty lively. Besides the Verizon guy, drivers and deliverymen and clients come and go. While we talk, Peter and Victor keep an eye through the open front door on their parking lot across the street, which they’re having repaved. The busyness is a reminder that at the heart of what they’re selling is distraction: Do you want this casket or that? What outfit would you like your deceased to wear? In a time of intense emotional distress, they lay out choices that give us the illusion, at least, of control over something we can’t control. And they do so in a setting whose grandeur—marble, mirrors, crystal, plush rugs—offers tribute to our loss in a solemn, satisfying way. We pay them, like the ferryman Charon, to row our dead from this world to the next. It’s an errand too overwhelming for us to face alone.
Way back in 1970, a funeral-industry publication predicted that before long, American funeral traditions would collapse completely, and services would take place without the presence of a body. This has proven prescient: Today, more and more Americans opt for corpse-free “memorial services” instead of funerals. We’ve gone from celebrating Christ’s triumph over the grave to chuckling at poor Uncle Fred’s golf game.
It’s understandable. The reality is harsh. We dispose of our dead because we have no choice: Eventually they stink, and they spread disease. Down through the ages, various means of dealing with dead bodies evolved: We’ve covered them with stones, buried them, floated them away, engulfed them in flames, let birds pick them apart. What remains after that is picked apart by people like Janet Monge, who, unlike most of us, will miss dead bodies when they’re gone.
“Most of archaeology is tombs,” says Janet, between bites of a cheesesteak. She’s an anthropology prof at Penn and the Curator and Keeper of Skeletal Collections at its museum—the guardian of the bones. There’s nothing grim or creepy about her, though, as we share lunch in her museum’s sun-drenched cafe. A native of West Philly, she’s plainspoken and wry, with deep-set eyes and a mass of wiry gray hair.
“Anthropologists use burial context to get to the identity of a people,” she explains. “There are a limited number of disposal methods, but many variations. You can have the body lying straight in the grave, or in fetal position, or on its side, like Muslims. It can be sitting down, standing up, with the hands folded or extended. … What objects are associated with them? What are they wearing? We try to pierce through and extract the minute differences.” What’s useful about graves is that they’re covered over, so the contents are protected. Cremation, though—“It’s a glimpse,” says Janet, “but it doesn’t allow us to do much study.”
The earliest bones in her collection are from the Middle East and were interred 25,000 years ago. “I think of them as individuals,” she says of the remains she catalogs. “They have stories to tell. Not the same as a human story, but a pretty elaborate one.”
Royal tombs tend to be fanciest. In Ancient Egypt, that meant bigger monuments, more elaborate death scrolls, better mummification, nicer linens. Other classes emulated as much as they could afford. “We still have this attempt to mimic extravagance in burials,” Janet notes. “How many flowers? How big a casket?” What has changed is our acceptance of death: “There’s an expectation now that biomedicine will cure everything. We don’t really think we’re going to die.”
Back when the first bodies went into my family plot, people died at home, in their beds. Loved ones, friends and neighbors gathered to watch and wait for you to “pass.” For Emily Dickinson, this moment was “that last Onset—when the King/Be witnessed—in the Room”: the breaching of the membrane between this world and the next.
Nowadays, most deaths in the U.S. take place in hospitals or nursing homes. We die in cranked-up beds, tethered to machines that clinically record our last breath and heartbeat; there’s no mystery, no piercing of the veil. We don’t take our dead home, bathe them, dress them, and lay them out in the front parlor. Dead people, frankly, creep us out. American burial rituals—the embalming, the concrete vaults—are proof. “There’s this idea that you’re not going to decompose,” Janet sniffs. “We’re supposed to decompose.”
One reason we’re so profoundly uncomfortable with death is that it’s become increasingly less familiar. In Pennsylvania in 1910, 150 out of every thousand children died before their first birthday. In 2010, it was less than eight. Death used to be a constant playmate; in Victorian times, a dead grandparent was mourned more than a dead child. Today, no tragedy looms larger than Sandy Hook.
My kids have been to less than a handful of funerals—and just two viewings, which totally weirded them out. I only ever go to my family’s burial plot for funerals. Graveyards were once popular spots for picnics and outings, but not anymore. Not to mention that we’re all increasingly mobile, likely to live hundreds or even thousands of miles from where family members are buried. A baby born today will move 12 times in her lifetime. Millennials say they hope to change jobs every three years. You can take Mom with you if she’s in an urn. Eternity in the same place is becoming a tough sell.
At the corner of 22nd and Market in Center City, where the Salvation Army thrift store once stood, a chain-link fence is pocked with memorials to the victims of its collapse in June: ratty stuffed animals, the remnants of a wreath, plastic wrappers surrounding desiccated bouquets. After six months, the detritus at one of the busiest intersections in town goes pretty much unnoticed; passersby don’t even glance at the forlorn shrine.
Japanese Buddhists believe the dead spend three to five decades as familial ancestor spirits before losing their personal identity and joining the larger spirit world. Why three to five decades? Because that’s as long as anyone who survives is likely to remember them. It’s a tidy system, and it avoids the problem that plagues both cemeteries and the corner of 22nd and Market: At some point, somebody will have to take down that chain-link fence and decide what to do with the clutter. Across America, graveyards demand mowing and weeding and raking and fertilizing. They’re going into bankruptcy. The living no longer visit. “No one’s going to take care of cemeteries,” Janet Monge says mournfully.
You have to meet people where they are, though. Sociologist Peter Berger once wrote, “Every human society is, in the last resort, men banded together in the face of death.” Where will we band together now that we’re having our cremains packed into fireworks and made into jewels?
We’re already there.
Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky has a video she took on her smartphone of her sister Peggy and her sister Franny. Franny is dead, and Peggy is brushing Franny’s hair. Ronnie and Peggy and four other sisters were all with Franny when she died of cancer in the spring of 2011. “It was a beautiful day,” says Ronnie. “You could smell the hyacinths through the window. I thought, how could this day be so beautiful and Franny be gone?”
Six months earlier, Ronnie’s mom had died. “Mom’s funeral was by the template,” says Ronnie, who grew up in a large Catholic family. “We went to the funeral director. We were carried by the institutional aspect of it, and there was great comfort in that.”
When the family walked into the funeral home, “Mom looked so beautiful,” says Ronnie. “I don’t think she ever had a manicure in her life, but her nails were done, with just a little bit of pearl at the tips.” After the initial shock, everybody started laughing and joking: “The viewing was fun! Our childhood friends were there, my brothers and sisters were there, my parents’ friends—it was almost like a party, a beautiful reunion. I felt bad that Mom was just lying there.”
Her mom was buried the next day in the family plot after a funeral at Holy Martyrs Church. “I was baptized there. I went to grade school there,” says Ronnie. “The priest adored my parents.” The funeral, too, was a reunion of sorts.
Franny’s services proved more problematic. She and her husband didn’t belong to a church. “So we needed a place,” Ronnie explains. “We thought about a catering hall. But we wanted something that felt like a place where other seekers had gathered.” A pastor who knew the family asked if he could be of help, so they had a service at his church.
Franny wanted to be cremated. She had ideas about her funeral’s vibe, too: “She had a fabulous sense of humor,” says Ronnie. “She didn’t want anyone to cry. She wanted AC/DC music. She wanted to distribute clown noses. Her funeral was very much her.”
There was what Ronnie calls a “meet-and-greet” at the funeral home, with pictures and posters of Franny everywhere, and half the kids from her teenage sons’ school, and her ashes in a box. Then came the service at the church (songs included “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and then lunch, with a DJ and dancing—and clown noses. “Franny would have loved it,” Ronnie says.
Ronnie has a little bag of Franny’s ashes in her desk drawer at home. She also has Franny’s Facebook page to look at, and the brief video, taken just after Franny died, when it didn’t seem right to leave her alone in her hospice bed. Ronnie and Peggy stayed until the undertaker came. Franny had always been meticulous about her appearance, so they did her hair and makeup, as a final act of love. Then Ronnie took a few last photos and the video. “I look at them all the time,” she says, and touches her heart unconsciously.
Our societal switch from burial to cremation doesn’t just reflect the fact we’re less convinced we’ll need our bodies for the Resurrection. It’s our way of saying that our bodies no longer truly represent who we are, or were. How could they, when, like Ronnie, we can open our phones and see our sister long after she’s dead and gone?
Gary Laderman, an Emory University professor of American religious history, has written about “the uncannily appropriate fit between modern fixations on death and the fecund ritual possibilities in cyberspace.” Mourners are paying to maintain their loved ones’ cell-phone accounts, in order to preserve treasured voicemails. Facebook allows Timelines for the dead to stay open, so messages can be sent across that great divide. Visitors to the Pennsylvania Burial Co.’s new website will be able to sign memorial books, light candles, post photos and video clips, leave mementos and messages, all without having to look death in the eye. (And you know what? A population fixated on selfies isn’t likely to trust a mortuary cosmetologist to create its last look anyway.)
The Internet will allow us to mourn in our own ways, at our own pace. We’ll discover new truths about our interconnectedness; we’ll touch base with long-lost family and friends. Our deaths will be woven into the twinkling reaches of the cyber-universe, spinning there forever with all the vast pictorial and textual clutter of our births, our education, our courtships, our likes and dislikes, far beyond the limitations of time and space.
And that limitlessness makes what was once the clear divide between life and death more porous. If my mom had died today instead of 30 years ago, she would have left more than a single photo for the grandkids. She would have crafted a whole online portfolio, a greatest-hits show on Twitter and Pinterest and Facebook and Vine. My kids would see her all the time. She would live in their pockets. Really, how is a grandmother who’s dead any different from one who’s in Seattle, or Seoul? Talk about blurred lines.
So we get everlasting life without all the fuss about hell and heaven. Trust the boomers to cheat the Grim Reaper once and for all.
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.”