Commerce, Cremation, and the Rituals of Death

CremationI spent much of yesterday making arrangements for the body of my dead brother. The death of a loved one is not a time when most people are up for comparison shopping. But I actually think it is the perfect time for it. I deal best with my brother’s death when I’m managing practical matters. When I think of our past and the things that we aren’t now going to be able to do is when I tend to fall to pieces. But dealing with getting his body moved from the facility where he died and managing the details of his cremation have been easy — and a welcome respite from the feelings of loss.

It turns out that there is a huge variation in the cost of such services. We choose Adobe Creek Funeral Home in Petaluma. The reason was simple: they are inexpensive. A basic cremation costs roughly $1,200 there. At another facility about 15 miles away, the cost was almost twice that amount. And I can’t imagine that we could have received better service. My fear in such matters is that the people I deal with will be too accommodating — something I would find fake as if they were pretending to feel something they weren’t. Instead, we dealt with a young man who respected the solemnity of the occasion without a hint of co-opting our experience.

What Is Cremation, After All?

When it comes to the technical matters, well, I can’t say. I don’t wish to be coarse, but I see a funeral — when it comes to the technical side of things — as really just a matter of garbage disposal. That corpse is not my brother. So it’s hard for me to imagine why anyone would care about the technical side of things. Are there better or worse ways to cremate a dead body? Maybe. But they certainly don’t matter to my brother. Funerals are for the living and their memories of the departed. So what mattered yesterday was the experience that my sister and I had. And it was a dignified and solemn experience that honored our brother. It definitely was nothing like the scene in The Big Lebowski.

The Business of Death

But a funeral home is a business. I assume that there are business aspects to funerals in all forms — even sky burial. But it is a business much in the same way that medicine is a business. We all feel that it is more than just a business. It is something people make money doing but is also something that we can’t help but consume. Thus we expect that practitioners are in it for more than just the money. I think this is another reason for doing comparison shopping at this most difficult time: an inexpensive funeral home is not a place where you likely to be preyed upon.

Just the same, if you did want to spend a lot of money at Adobe Creek Funeral Home, you could. (And don’t get me wrong: I don’t see anything wrong with people spending lavishly on a funeral if they find it helpful in their grieving process.) You could spend anywhere from $995 up to $9,000 for a coffin. A basic urn was included in the price of the cremation, but they had a very nice wooden urn for $150 and you could spend up to a few hundred dollars on more fancy models.

A Very Special Cremation

Of more interest to me was the selection of coffins that are for sale for the cremation process itself. This too is included in the price of the cremation. But because our brother was a very large man, he would not fit into the standard box, so we had to pay a bit more for a special box. That made sense. But I was shocked to see that one could spend as much as $2,195 for a cremation coffin. Clearly, these coffins are for something else. And I think it is a beautiful thing.

If you pay extra, you can take part in the cremation. This involves either just watching the coffin enter the incinerator, or being present for the whole procedure. I’m sure many people would find this ghoulish. I think that I would find it edifying — certainly much more so than going to a burial.[1] And I like the idea of following my brother as most of his body is vaporized and then taking his shredded bones and personally scattering them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, indeed! It strikes me as a final act of love — taking him by the hand and walking him to the edge of eternity.

Where Commerce Meets Spirituality

But to do this would have cost us another thousand dollars. It strikes me as a bargain, actually. But there are a number of reasons why it simply is out of the question — one being that something can be a bargain and still be out of your price range. Still, its an interesting nexus of commerce and spirituality. Indeed, the whole experience was like that. But I’m amazed that I don’t feel soiled by it. Our family has no expert on such matters. So we hired people to help us with the final step of turning my brother from a living part of our lives to a pure memory in our hearts. And that seems entirely fitting to me — even beautiful.

[1] I say this not least because everyone always leaves before the burial has really even begun. When the burial is “over,” there is just a coffin in a ditch.

Trump Is Nietzsche’s Last Man Not Übermensch

Hugo Drochon: Trump Is Nietzsche's Last ManI’ve heard it said that Trump may represent some approximation of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, and I think that’s deeply mistaken. But the reasons why it’s mistaken can help us think about what Trump actually is. First, it’s wrong because Trump represents everything Nietzsche hated. The philistinism, the mediocrity, the worshipping of money for its own sake — this is exactly the opposite of what Nietzsche advocated. By Übermensch, Nietzsche meant someone who could live beyond good and evil, beyond conventional values, who refused to appeal to herd instincts.

There’s a passage in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which he talks about the Übermensch, and I think it’s quite relevant. Zarathustra, the protagonist, comes down from his mountain retreat and tells the people in the town square that he’s going to teach them about the Übermensch, about what mankind should become, and the people are having none of it. They don’t want to hear that they’ve stopped believing in God; that life is chaos; that nothing lasts; that they’re living in illusion.

Zarathustra realizes the people are too decadent to hear this and so he decides instead to teach them about the “Last Man.” And the “Last Man” is the kind of person who doesn’t want to think, who fears progress, who is risk-averse, and desirous of comfort — who just wants everything to stay the same. Of course, the people erupt in joy when they hear this because this is what they really want.

This is what Trump is to me. This is what he represents. He’s a kind of “Last Man” demagogue, telling the people that he’s going make things great again, which is to say simple and how they once were — and they love him for it.

For Nietzsche, the celebration of a man like Trump was the inevitable result of a democratic culture built on the virtues of ignorance and self-fulfillment.

–Hugo Drochon
In What Nietzsche’s Philosophy Can Tell Us About Why Brexit and Trump Won