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.

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.