The Undertaker's Racket

Jessica Mitford's curiosity about undertakers was "whetted by the funeral trade magazines which opened up for me the bizarre world of the 'average' American funeral, far more curious than the death customs of ancient days or remote tribes. Further investigation convinced me that the fall implications of the funeral industry are undreamt of by the average American, even in his nightmares." Her book, The American Way of Death, will be published this summer by Simon & Schuster.

There was a time when the undertaker's tasks were clear-cut and rather obvious, and when he billed his patrons accordingly. Typical late-nineteenth-century charges, in addition to the price of merchandise, are shown on bills of the period as: "Services at the house (placing corpse in the coffin), $1.25," "Preserving remains on ice, $10,,, "Getting Permit, 81.50." It was customary for the undertaker to add a few dollars to his bill for being "in attendance," which seems only fair and right. As historians of the trade have pointed out, "The undertaker had as yet to conceive of the value of personal services offered professionally for a fee, legitimately claimed." Well, he has now so conceived with a vengeance.

When discussing "service" as it is rendered today, spokesmen for the funeral industry tend to become so carried away by their own enthusiasm, so positively lyrical and copious in their declarations, that the outsider may have a little trouble understanding it all. There are indeed contradictions. Thus, a member of the Preferred Funeral Directors International (and also of the select Order of the Golden Rule) tells us, "The American public receive the services of employees and proprietor alike, nine and one half days of labor for every funeral handled, they receive the use of automobiles and hearses, a building including a chapel and other rooms which require building maintenance, insurance, taxes and licenses, and depreciation, as well as heat in the winter, cooling in the summer and light and water." He goes on to say that, while the process of embalming takes only about three hours, yet, "it would be necessary for one man to work two forty-hour weeks to complete a funeral service. This is coupled with an additional forty hours service required by members of other local allied professions, including the work of the cemeteries, newspapers, and of course, the most important of all, the service of your clergyman. These some 120 hours of labor are the basic value on which the cost of funerals rests."

Our informant has lumped a lot of things together here. To start with "the most important of all, the service of your clergyman," the average religious funeral service lasts no more than twentyfive minutes. Furthermore, it is not, of course, paid for by the funeral director. The "work of the cemeteries" presumably means the opening and closing of a grave. This now mechanized operation, which takes fifteen to twenty minutes, is likewise not billed as part of the funeral director's costs. The work of newspapers? This is a puzzler. Presumably, reference is made here to the publication of an obituary notice on the vital-statistics page. It is, incidentally, surprising to learn that newspaper work is considered an "allied profession,''

Just how insurance, taxes, licenses, and depreciation are figured in as part of the 120 man-hours of service is hard to tell. The writer does mention that his operation features "65 items of service." In general, the funeral salesman is inclined to chuck in everything he does under the heading of "service." For example, in a typical list of "services" he will include items like: "Securing statistical data" (in other words, completing the death certificate and finding out how much insurance was left by the deceased), "the arrangements conference" (in which the sale of the funeral to the survivors is made), and the "keeping of records," by which he means his own bookkeeping work. Evidently there is some confusion here between items that properly belong in a cost-accounting system and items of actual service rendered in any given funeral.

Having decreed what sort of funeral is right, proper, and nice, and having gradually appropriated to himself all of the functions connected with it, the funeral director has become responsible for a multitude of tasks beyond the obvious one of "placing corpse in the coffin" recorded in our nineteenth-century funeral bill. He has relieved the family of every detail, he has revamped the corpse to look like a living doll, he has arranged for it to nap for a few days in a slumber room, he has put on a well-oiled performance in which the concept of death has played no part whatsoever-unless it was inconsiderately mentioned by the clergyman who conducted the religious service. He has done everything in his power to make the funeral a real pleasure for everybody concerned. He and his team have given their all to score an upset victory over death.

The funeral men have managed to delete the word "death" and all its associations from their vocabulary. They have published lists of In and Out words and phrases to be used in connection with the final return of dust to dust.

“The use of improper terminology by anyone affiliated with a mortuary should be strictly forbidden," declares Edward A. Martin. He suggests a rather thorough overhauling of the language: "Mr., Mrs., Miss Blank, not corpse or body; preparation room, not morgue; casket, not coffin; funeral director or mortician, not undertaker; reposing room or slumber room, not layingout room; display room, not showroom; baby or infant, not stillborn; deceased, not dead; autopsy or post-mortem, not post; casket coach, not hearse; shipping case, not shipping box; flower car, not flower truck; cremains or cremated remains, not ashes; clothing, dress, suit, etc., not shroud; drawing room, not parlor."

This rather basic list was refined in 1956 by Victor Landig in his Basic Principles of Funeral Service. He enjoins the reader to avoid using the word "death" as much as possible; even sometimes when such avoidance may seem impossible; for example, a death certificate should be referred to as a "vital statistics form." One should speak not of the job but rather of the call. We do not haul a dead person, we transfer or remove him and we do this in a service car, not a body car. We open and close his grave rather than dig and fill it, and in it we inter rather than bury him. This is done, not in a graveyard or cemetery, but rather in a memorial park. The deceased is beautified, not with makeup but with cosmetics. Anyway, he didn't die, he expired. An important error to guard against, cautions Mr. Landig, is referring to "cost of the casket." The phrase "amount of investment in the service" is a wiser usage here.

As for the Loved One, poor fellow, he wanders like a sad ghost through the funeral men's pronouncements. No provision seems to have been made for the burial of a Heartily Disliked One, although the necessity for such must arise in the course of human events.

What hope is there for the person who would like to forgo the ministrations awaiting him in the preparation room, to avoid being cosmetized, casketed, and transferred to repose in the slumber room? What can he do to protect his survivors from being victimized in the name of sentiment and sanitation?

At the moment the best solution would seem to be offered by the Funeral Societies (or Memorial Associations) which have sprung up over the last few years in many parts of the United States and Canada. Last year these groups convened the first national meeting on funeral reform ever held in America and established a headquarters in Chicago which furnishes information about the societies.

Some of the societies function as educational organizations and limit themselves to advocacy of "rationally pre-planned final arrangements." Most, however, have gone a step further and through collective bargaining have secured contracts with one or more funeral establishments to supply simple, dignified funerals for their members at an agreed-on sum, generally around $100. There is some diversity of outlook in the societies: some emphasize cremation; others are more interested in educational programs advocating bequeathal of bodies to medical schools; still others stress freedom of choice in the matter of burials as their main concern.

The societies are for the most part organized by Unitarian churches, Quakers, and other Protestant church groups, and are open to everybody. They tend to flourish best in the quiet backwaters of university towns, drawing their active membership from the ministry, the academic community, professional groups. These mild folk might be dismayed at the way they are described in the funeral trade press: "Burial beatniks of America," "Weasels sucking away at the life blood of our basic economy," "Alien to every principle of the American way of life."

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