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.”