In 1960, Americans spent, according to the only available government estimate, $1.6 billion on funerals, setting thereby a new national and world record. The $1.6 billion is, as we shall see, only a portion of what was actually spent on what the death industry calls "the care and memorialization of the dead." Even this partial figure, if averaged out among the number of deaths, would amount to the astonishing sum of $942 for the funeral of every man, woman, child, and stillborn babe who died in the United States in 1960. This is a record unmatched in any previous age or civilization.
The $1.6 billion figure that is given for our national burial bill is furnished by the U.S. Department of Commerce census of business under the heading "personal expenditure for death expense." Since it includes personal expenditures only, it does not include burial expenditures by cities and counties and by private and public institutions for the burial of indigents, welfare recipients, and persons confined in public institutions, nor does it include burial expenditures by the armed forces for military personnel. How much do these public expenditures amount to annually? Nobody knows, for there is no centrally maintained source of information. The burial of indigents, for example, is a matter of city or county concern. There is a wildly disparate variation in costs and procedures. Some counties contract with funeral directors for casket, service, and burial for as little as $70; some pay as much as $300 for casket and service alone.
Another substantial item of funeral expense which is not included in the Department of Commerce figure is the cost of shipping the dead by train or plane. These charges must be considerable; one in ten of all the dead is shipped elsewhere for burial. Train fare for a corpse is double the cost of a single first-class ticket for a live passenger. The standard rate for air shipment of human remains is two and one half times the rate for other air freight; the average transcontinental fare for a dead body is $255.78.
Funeral flowers are not included in the Department of Commerce figures. These account for a good bit more than half of the dollar volume of all sales by retail florists in the United States.
Last, the Department of Commerce statistics leave out of account entirely the very considerable amounts spent each year by Americans who in increasing numbers buy graves and mausoleum crypts for future occupancy. This mushrooming business, running into hundreds of millions of dollars annually, is known in cemetery parlance as "pre-need" selling.
It would be a conservative guess that these extras, if added to the Commerce Department's base figure of $1.6 billion, would bring the nation's burial bill to well over $2 billion. A little over three fourths of all funerals are what the industry calls "regular adult funerals." The remainder are limited-service funerals for infants and limited-fee funerals for indigents and servicemen, handled by contract with government agencies. The Department of Commerce figure averages out to $1160 for each regular adult funeral. The more realistic figure of $2 billion yields a nationwide average of $1450 for the disposition of the mortal remains of an adult American.
Funeral people, confronted with the charge that they are responsible for the staggering cost of dying, loudly protest their innocence; how can it be their fault, if fault it be, they say. It is up to the individual family to decide how much to spend on a funeral, and if more is spent by Americans on death than is spent for conservation of natural resources, for fire or police protection; if funeral expenditures exceed personal expenditures for higher education, that's only because funeral buyers are exercising their inalienable right to spend their money as they choose.
"How much should a funeral cost?" says Wilbur Krieger, managing director of the National Selected Morticians. "That's like asking how much should I pay for a house or how much for a car. You can buy at all prices." Most funeral advertising stresses the same thought: "The decision of how much to spend for a funeral always rests with the family."
Very occasionally, somebody within the industry will spill the beans. Such a one was W. W. Chambers, self-styled "slab-happy" mortician of Washington, D. C., who has built up a million-dollar mortuary empire. "It's the most highly specialized racket in the world," he declared, testifying before a congressional committee in 1947. "It has no standard prices; whatever can be charged and gotten away with is the guiding rule. My competitors don't like my habit of advertising prices in black and white, because they'd rather keep the right to charge six different prices for the same funeral to six different people, according to what they can pay. Why, some of these bums charge a family $90 to bury a poor little baby in a casket that costs only $4.50." Scoffing at the suggestion that an undertaker is a "professional man," Chambers said any good plumber could learn how to embalm in sixty days. He added that he could embalm a human body for forty cents and an elephant for $1.50.
Foreigners are astonished to learn that almost all Americans are embalmed and publicly displayed after death. The practice is unheard of outside the United States and Canada. As Alfred Fellows, an English jurist, wrote in The Law of Burial, "A public exhibition of an embalmed body, as that of Lenin in Moscow, would presumably be dealt with as a revolting spectacle and therefore a public nuisance."
I asked a London undertaker if he had ever conducted an open-casket funeral, in which the mourners file by to look at the embalmed corpse. He answered that such a thing would be considered so absolutely weird, so contrary to good taste and proper behavior, so shocking to the sensibilities of all concerned that he thinks it could never become a practice in England. The overwhelming majority of English of all classes, he said, settle for a simple wooden coffin and a small gathering (six or seven is average) of the immediate family at the funeral service. Cremation is sharply on the increase there, and in 90 percent of cases the ashes do not wind up in an elaborate urn housed in a niche in some columbarium, but are scattered over the countryside or in a garden.
Why has embalming become a routine feature of American funerals, and how has it been sold to the American public?
Some rather solid-sounding sounding justifications for the procedure have been advanced, above and beyond the fact that embalming is good business for the undertaker because it helps him to sell more expensive caskets.
The two most common grounds chosen by the undertaking trade for defense of embalming embrace two objectives near and dear to the hearts of Americans: hygiene and mental health. The theory that embalming is an essential hygienic measure has long been put forward by the funeral industry. A much newer concept, that embalming and restoring the deceased are necessary for the mental well-being of the survivors, is just now being developed by industry leaders. The observer who looks closely will discover a myth in the making here. "Grief Therapy" is the official name bestowed by the undertakers on this new aspect of their work.
Still, the primary purpose of embalming, all funeral men will tell you, is a sanitary one, the disinfecting of the body so that it is no longer a health menace. Several writers for the trade, soaring to wonderful heights of fantasy; have gone so far as to attribute the falling death rate in this century to the practice of embalming (which, if true, would seem a little shortsighted on the part of the practitioners): "It is a significant fact that when embalming was in its infancy, the death rate was 21 to every 1,000 persons per year, and today it has been reduced to 10 to every 1,000 per year." The writer magnanimously bestows "a great deal of credit" for this on the medical profession, adding that funeral directors are responsible for "about 50 percent of this wonderful work of sanitation which has so materially lowered the death rate."
When embalmers get together to talk among themselves, they are more realistic about the wonderful work of sanitation. In a panel discussion reported in the National Funeral Service Journal of April, 1959, Dr. I. M. Feinberg, an instructor at the Worsham College of Mortuary Science, said: 'Sanitation is probably the farthest thing from the mind of the modern embalmer….We must realize that the motives for embalming at the present time are economic and sentimental, with a slight religious overtone."
Whether or not the undertakers themselves actually believe that embalming fulfills an important health function (and there is evidence that most of them really do believe it), they have been extraordinarily successful in convincing the public that it does. Outside of medical circles, people who are otherwise reasonably knowledgeable and sophisticated take for granted not only that embalming is done for reasons of sanitation but that it is required by law.
In an effort to sift fact from fiction and to get an objective opinion on the matter, I sought out Dr. Jesse Carr, chief of pathology at the San Francisco General Hospital and professor of pathology at the University of California Medical School, I wanted to know specifically how, and to what extent, and under what circumstances an unembalmed cadaver poses a health threat to the living.
To my question, "Arc undertakers, in their capacity of embalmers guardians of the public health?", Dr. Carr's answer was short and to the point: "They are not guardians of anything except their pocketbooks. Public-health virtues of embalming? You can write it off as inapplicable to our present-day conditions." Discussing possible injury to health caused by the presence of a dead body, Dr. Carr explained that in cases of communicable disease a dead body is considerably less of a hazard than a live one. "There are several advantages to being dead," he said cheerfully. "You don't excrete, inhale, exhale, or perspire." The body of a person who has died of a noncommunicable illness, such as heart disease or cancer, presents no hazard whatsoever, he explained. In the case of death from typhoid, cholera, plague, or other enteric infections, epidemics have been caused in the past by spread of infection by rodents and seepage from graves into the city water supply. The old-time cemeteries and churchyards were particularly dangerous breeding grounds for these scourges. The solution, however, lies in city planning, engineering, and sanitation, rather than in embalming, for the organisms which cause disease live in the organs, the blood, and the bowel, and cannot all be killed by the embalming process. Thus was toppled, for me at least, the last stronghold of the embalmers; for until then I had confidently believed that their work had value in the rare cases where death is caused by such diseases.
A body will keep, under normal conditions, for twenty-four hours unless it has been opened. Floaters, explained Dr. Cart' in his commonsense way, are another matter; the hospital staff used to burn gunpowder in the morgue when floaters were brought in, to mask the smell, but now they put them in the deepfreeze, and after about four hours the odor stops (because the outside of the body is frozen) and the autopsy can be performed. "A good undertaker would do his cosmetology and then freeze," said Dr. Carr thoughtfully. "Freezing is modern and sensible."
Anxious that we should not drift back to the subject of the floaters, I asked about the efficacy of embalming as a means of preservation. Even if it is very well done, he said, few cadavers embalmed for the funeral (as distinct from those embalmed for research purposes) are actually preserved. "An exhumed embalmed body is a repugnant, moldy, foul-looking object," said Dr. Carr emphatically. "It's not the image of one who has been loved. You might use the quotation, 'John Brown's Body Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave'; that really sums it up.''
The caskets, he said, even the solid mahogany ones that cost thousands of dollars, just disintegrate. He spoke of a case where a man was exhumed two and a half months after burial: "The casket fell apart and the body was covered with mold, long whiskers of penicillin -he looked ghastly. I'd rather be nice and rotten than covered with those whiskers of mold, although the penicillin is a pretty good preservative. Better, in fact, than embalming fluid."
Will an embalmed corpse fare better in a sealed metal casket? Far from it. 'If you seal up a casket so it is more or less airtight, you seal in the anaerobic bacteria- the kind that thrive in an airless atmosphere, you see. These are the putrefactive bacteria, and the results of their growth are pretty horrible." He proceeded to describe them rather vividly, and added, "You're a lot better off to be buried in an aerobic atmosphere; otherwise the putrefactive bacteria take over. In fact, you're really better off with a shroud and no casket at all."
Like many another pathologist, Dr. Carr has had his run-ins with funeral directors who urge their clients to refuse to consent to postmortem medical examinations. The funeral men hate autopsies; for one thing, it does make embalming more difficult, and also they find it harder to sell the family an expensive casket if the decedent has been autopsied. Dr. Carr said, "It's generally the badly trained or avaricious undertaker who is resistant to the autopsy procedure. They all tip the hospital morgue men who help them, but the resistant ones are obstructive, unskilled, and can be nasty to the point of viciousness. They lie to the family, citing all sorts of horrible things that can happen to the deceased, and while they're usually very soft-spoken with the family, they are inordinately profane with hospital superintendents and pathologists."
In a symposium in Mortuary Management of November, 1959, on funeral directors' attitudes toward autopsies, some of this hostility to doctors erupts into print. One undertaker writes, "The trouble with doctors is that they think they are little tin Gods, and anything they want, we should bow to, without question. My feeling is that the business of the Funeral director is to serve the family in the best way he knows how, and if the funeral director knows that an autopsy is going to work a hardship, and result in a body that would be difficult to show, or that couldn't be shown at all, then I think the funeral director has not only the right, but the duty, to advise the family against permitting an autopsy." Another, defending the pathologists ("After all, the medical profession as a whole is reasonably intelligent"), describes himself as a "renegade embalmer where the matter of autopsies is concerned." He points to medical discoveries which have resulted from postmortem examination; but he evidently feels he is in a minority, for he says: "Most funeral directors are still 'horse and buggy undertakers' in their thinking and it shows up glaringly in their moronic attitude towards autopsies."
The seller of funerals has, one gathers, a preconceived, stereotyped view of his customers. To him, the bereaved person who enters his establishment is a bundle of guilt feelings, a snob, and a status seeker. The undertaker feels that by steering his customer to the top-priced casket, he is giving him his first dose of grief therapy, for, according to a trade magazine, "the focus of the buyer's interest must be the casket, vault, clothing, funeral cars, etc.—the only tangible evidence of how much has been invested in the funeral—the only real status symbol associated with a funeral service."
Whether or not one agrees with this rather unflattering appraisal of the average person who has suffered a death in the family, it is nevertheless true that the funeral transaction is generally influenced by a combination of circumstances which bear upon the buyer as in no other type of business dealing: the disorientation caused by bereavement, the lack of standards by which to judge the value of the commodity offered by the seller, the need to make an on-the-spot decision, general ignorance of the law as it affects disposal of the dead, and the ready availability of insurance money to finance the transaction. These are worth analyzing because they predetermine to a large extent the outcome of the transaction.
The buyer's frame of mind will vary, obviously, according to the circumstances which led him to the funeral establishment. The great majority of funeral buyers, as they are led through their paces at the mortuary—whether shaken and grief-stricken or merely looking forward with pleasurable anticipation to the reading of the will—are assailed by many a nagging question: What is the right thing to do? I am arranging this funeral, but surely this is no time to indulge my own preferences in taste and style. What will her family and friends expect? How can I avoid criticism for inadvertently doing the wrong thing? And, above all, it should be a nice, decent funeral - but what is a nice, decent funeral?
Which leads us to the second unusual aspect of the funeral transaction: the buyer's almost total ignorance of what to expect when he enters the undertaker's parlor. What to look for, what to avoid, how much to spend. The funeral industry estimates that the average individual has to arrange for a funeral only once in fifteen years. The cost of the funeral is the third largest expenditure, after a house and a car, in the life of an ordinary American family. Yet even in the case of an old relative whose death may have been fully expected and even welcomed, it is most unlikely that the buyer will have discussed the funeral with anybody in advance.
Because of the nature of funerals, the buyer is in a quite different position from one who is, for example, in the market for a car. Visualize the approach. The man of prudence and common sense who is about to buy a car consults a consumer's research bulletin or seeks the advice of his friends; he knows in advance the dangers of rushing into a deal blindly. In the funeral home, the man of prudence is completely at sea without a recognizable landmark or bearing to guide him. It would be an unusual person who would examine the various offerings and then inquire around about the relative advantages of the Monaco casket by Merit and the Valley Forge by Boyertown. In the matter of cost, a like difference is manifest. The funeral buyer is generally not in the mood to compare prices here, examine and appraise quality there.
The third factor which confronts the buyer is the need to make an on-the-spot decision. Impulse buying, which should ordinarily be avoided, is here a built-in necessity. The convenient equivocations of commerce—"I'll look around a little, and let you know," "Maybe, I'll call you in a couple of weeks if I decide to take it"—simply do not apply in this situation.
Popular ignorance about the law as it relates to the disposal of the dead is a factor that sometimes affects the funeral transaction. People are often astonished to learn that in no state is embalming required by law except in certain special circumstances, such as when the body is to he shipped by common carrier.
The funeral men foster these misconceptions, sometimes by coolly misstating the law to the funeral buyer and sometimes by inferentially investing with the authority of law certain trade practices which they find convenient or profitable to follow. This free and easy attitude toward the law is even to be found in those institutes of higher learning, the colleges of mortuary science, where the fledgling undertaker receives his training. For example, it is the law in most states that when a decedent bequeaths his body for use in medical research, his survivors are bound to carry out his directions. Nonetheless, an embalming textbook disposes of the whole distasteful subject in a few misleading words: "Q: Will the provisions in the will of a decedent that his body be given to a medical college for dissection be upheld over his widow? A: No…No one owns or controls his own body to the extent that he may dispose of the same in a manner which would bring humiliation and grief to the immediate members of his family."
I had been told so often that funeral men tend to invent the law as they go along (for there is a fat financial reward at stake) that I decided to investigate this situation at firsthand. Armed with a copy of the California code, I telephoned a leading undertaker in my community with a concocted story: my aged aunt, living in my home, was seriously ill—not expected to live more than a few days. Her daughter was coming here directly; but I felt I ought to have some suggestions, some arrangements to propose in the event that— Sympathetic monosyllables from my interlocutor. The family would want something very simple, I went on, just cremation. Of course, we can arrange all that, I was assured. And since we want only cremation, and there will be no service, we should prefer not to buy a coffin. The undertaker's voice at the other end of the phone was now alert, although smooth. He told me, calmly and authoritatively, that it would be "illegal" for him to enter into such an arrangement. "You mean it would be against the law?" I asked. Yes, indeed. I took a deep breath and pressed on: "In that case, perhaps we could take the body straight to the crematorium in our station wagon?" A shocked silence, followed by an explosive outburst: "Madam, the average lady has neither the facilities nor the inclination to be hauling dead bodies around!" (Which was actually a good point, I thought.)
I tried two more funeral establishments and was told substantially the same thing: cremation of an uncoffined body is prohibited under California law. This was said, in all three cases, with such a ring of conviction that I began to doubt the evidence before my eyes in the state code. I reread the sections on cremation, on health requirements; finally I read the whole thing from cover to cover. Finding no reference to an uncoffined body, I checked with an officer of the Board of Health, who told me there is no law in California requiring that a coffin be used when a body is cremated.
It is, however, true that most privately owned crematoria have their own privately established rule that they will not cremate without a coffin. After all, why not? Many are in the casket-selling business themselves, and those that are not depend for their livelihood on the goodwill of undertakers who are.
Cemetery salesmen are also prone to confuse fact with fiction to their own advantage in discussing the law. Cemeteries derive a substantial income from the sale of vaults. The vault, a cement enclosure for the casket, is not only a money-maker; it facilitates upkeep of the cemetery by preventing the eventual subsidence of the grave as the casket disintegrates. In response to my inquiry, a cemetery salesman (identified on his card as a "memorial counsellor") called at my house to sell me what he was pleased to call a "pre-need memorial estate"—in other words, a grave. After he had quoted the prices of the various graves, the salesman explained that a minimum of $120 must be added for a vault, which, he said, is "required by law." Why is it required by law? To prevent the ground from caving in. But suppose I should be buried in one of those eternal caskets made of solid bronze? Those things are not as solid as they look; you'd be surprised how soon they fall apart. Are you sure it is required by law? I've been in this business fifteen years, I should know. Then would you be willing to sign this! I had been writing on a sheet of paper, "California State Law requires a vault for ground burial.") The memorial counsellor swept up his colored photographs of memorial estates, backed out the door, and fled down the street.
The fifth unusual factor present in the funeral transaction is the availability to the buyer of relatively large sums of cash. The family accustomed to buying every major item on time—car, television set, furniture—and to spending to the limit of the weekly paycheck suddenly finds itself in possession of insurance funds and death-benefit payments, often from a number of sources. It is usually unnecessary for the undertaker to resort to crude means to ascertain the extent of insurance coverage. A few simple and perfectly natural questions put to the family while he is completing the vital-statistics forms will serve to elicit all he needs to know. For example, "Occupation of the deceased?" "Shall we bill the insurance company directly?"
The undertaker knows, better than a schoolboy knows the standings of the major league baseball teams, the death-benefit payments of every trade union in the community, the social security and workmen's compensation scale of death benefits, the veterans' and servicemen's death benefits.
At the lowest end of the scale is the old-age pensioner, most of whose savings have long since been spent. He is among the poorest of the poor. Nevertheless, most state and county welfare agencies permit him to have up to 81000 in cash; in some states he may own a modest home as well, without jeopardizing his pension. The undertaker knows that under the law of virtually every state the funeral bill is entitled to preference in payment as the first charge against the estate. (Efforts in some states to pass legislation limiting the amount of the priority for burial costs to, say, $500 have been frustrated by the funeral lobby.) There is every likelihood that the poor old chap will be sent out in high style unless his widow is a very knowledgeable customer.
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."