The Time Has Come

Thinking about the logical next step in the funeral industry's evolution

WHEN Jessica Mitford died, in 1996, at the age of seventy-eight, a rumor went around that she had left behind an unfinished sequel to her 1963 nonfiction classic The American Way of Death, an acerbic study of American funerary practices at mid-century. It was perhaps Mitford more than anyone else who established in popular culture the images of the soothing, mercantilist funeral director and the vast commercial enterprise, by turns pathetic, futile, and grand, of which the funeral director is the embodiment -- images that may be somewhat short of the truth even as they are now effectively beyond parody. Lending substance to the rumor of a sequel was the companion rumor of a persuasively Mitfordian title: Death Warmed Over.

Alas, the rumor turned out to be mostly just that -- no fresh work awaited publication. But with an eye to a new edition Mitford had undertaken a certain amount of revision, and the result, under the title has just been published.

A revised edition was long overdue, for two reasons. The first is that owing in some measure to the influence of The American Way of Death, funeral customs in America have during the past three decades become far more personalized and freewheeling than ever before. Communities around the country have loosened regulations governing attendance upon the dead, allowing families rather than funeral homes to arrange for the ultimate disposition of remains. In some places embalming services have been organized into collectives, on the model of food cooperatives. A brochure that recently came to my house suggests that a thriving mail-order business in coffins now exists. The choices I was offered by a company called Casket Royale ranged from the understated and inexpensive Canterbury model to the costly but elegant Buckingham; a box on the order form could be checked for "24 Hour Rush Delivery." Though still the destiny of a majority, burial is the option desired by fewer and fewer Americans these days. A company called Relict Memorials, in Mill Valley, California, specializes in turning cremated remains into customized granitelike slabs. Kits are available for swabbing and preserving samples of the departed's DNA, and a company now exists to provide "perpetual care" for one's Web site. A Kentucky bookbinder and printer, Timothy Hawley Books, offers a line of what it calls bibliocadavers -- handsomely bound volumes whose blank or printed pages are created from a pulp containing the ashes of a loved one. The advent of bibliocadavers will, if nothing else, add a new facet to the idea of a book's being remaindered.

A dawning recognition of expanded options is also evident in England, the land of Jessica Mitford's birth, where American funerary practices have been a subject of merriment (see Evelyn Waugh's mordant 1948 novel The Loved One) even as local custom verges on desuetude. Lamenting the fact that funerals in England are so often "miserable and disappointing" affairs, the National Funerals College, which operates training programs for undertakers, has issued a twenty-four-point Dead Citizens' Charter. Among the recommendations: that funeral homes reveal their prices in advance; that the clergy try to learn something about the people whose funerals they conduct; and that owners of crematoria be less peremptory as they rush each mourning party through "the slot" (the time period allotted before the conveyor belt must roll). One of the drafters of the Dead Citizens' Charter is also a co-editor of a new academic journal, which, according to an inaugural editorial, was founded in part in response to "the variety of reform groups created to improve the social rituals" surrounding death. In the East London district of Walthamstow a "death-care supermarket" has opened its doors. The store, named Regale, whose employees are forbidden to wear black, sells everything from tombstones and garden trowels to coffins that can serve as bookcases or wine racks until needed for another purpose. "This," the store's owner told an English newspaper, "was an industry stuck in Victorian times."

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Of course, in its economic rather more than in its aesthetic aspects the funeral industry is far from being stuck in Victorian times -- which brings up the second reason why revision of the Mitford book was overdue.

To a degree that The American Way of Death did not anticipate, the funeral industry has become like any other, with corporate conglomerates swallowing up independent operators in a quest for streamlined efficiency, growing market share, and, as one funeral-industry analyst describes it, "an assured customer base." Those who follow the funeral industry point out that the very same demographic reality that gave us the Pepsi Generation in the 1960s and thirtysomething in the 1980s is about to usher in what has been called the Golden Era of Death. A single American company, Service Corporation International, of Houston, already owns some five percent (or 1,112) of the funeral homes in America. Service Corporation and other investor-owned chains are looking beyond our shores to the potential markets in Canada, England, Australia, and New Zealand. The funeral industry is also becoming vertically integrated to an increasing extent. Much as movie studios once owned theaters, the big funeral-industry companies have acquired not only mortuaries but also cemeteries and crematoria.

Some may look askance at such developments, descrying a further breakdown of communal bonds. Others will see progress, and observe that in this age of market-driven restructuring and global free trade, registering objections to economic reality is about as useful as registering objections to photosynthesis or gravity.

In The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh created The Dreamer, the marketing visionary who built Whispering Glades memorial park, a lush California necropolis. I imagine that some new Dreamer has already begun thinking about the logical next step in the funeral industry's corporate evolution, which is to smooth out fluctuations in the all-important assured customer base. Truly long-range planners may look to parallels with the effective management of forestry resources (one can't just keep harvesting old growth; one has to plant tracts of saplings), but those more interested in near-term opportunity might consider a merger of the corporate death-care giants with elements of the rapidly reorganizing health-care industry.

Part health-insurance company, part health-management organization, part hospital, part hospice, part funeral home -- such a company, perhaps called Service Corporation Permanente, would offer the kind of integrated management that could abolish bottlenecks and shortages at any stage of the production cycle. Of course, some resistance can be anticipated -- for instance, over the legalization of mortician-assisted suicide. In its broad outline, however, this is surely an idea whose time, like yours, must come.

Cullen Murphy is the managing editor of The Atlantic and the author of The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (1988) and (1995), a book of essays. He writes the comic strip Prince Valiant.

Illustration by Mark Matcho

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; The Time Has Come; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 24 - 26.