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.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

22 thoughts on “Commerce, Cremation, and the Rituals of Death

  1. When my brothers and I were scattering our loved one’s ashes, it was on a similar cliff. Two of us approached the cliff, two stepped back. After the dust cleared, we two in back were asked why we’d stepped away. Our answer was “The Big Lebowski.” (BTW, scattering ashes is technically illegal, but unless you do it in front of a police station or park ranger, nobody cares.)

    I have yet to meet a jerky funeral home employee. I suspect a hard-sales type or a fake-sympathy type wouldn’t last long. The shitty people at funerals are the other mourners. There’s usually one who gets all pissy about having the largest floral display, makes a big show of telling everyone how much they cared, etc. Dealing with these assholes respectfully is the true art of a funeral home worker. I couldn’t do it.

    The coffin/urn stuff is wild. People spend crazy amounts for hermetically sealed titanium and such. Um, you do have bacteria in your body. You’ll still decompose. It just won’t go anywhere. So there’ll be bones and a puddle of anaerobic goo.

    Either the funniest or saddest urn I ever saw was one shaped like a TV remote. It had big buttons and everything.

    Here’s a thing I learned about years ago. There are forensic investigation places that use bodies to teach students and train search dogs: http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/sc-body-donation-health-1019-20161018-story.html

    This suits me. I kinda always wanted to just wander deep in the wilderness and take lotsa pills when the time comes — mostly to spook out the hikers who found me. But then the coroner’s office has to spend money determining if there was foul play. Far better to help make forensic science more accurate!

    • Ah, cadaver dogs! In my series “The Amazing Adventures of Rat Dog and Trodden,” I tried to integrate a cadaver dog. He was very boring — just focused on work. But I do think there is potential there.

      I think you have a good idea for killing yourself. All you need to do is find some place where it would be really unlikely that your body would be found. But you would need to do two things to make everyone else’s lives easier. First, you would have to send a letter explaining what you had done to those who know and care about you. And you should create a document with all your important information and the facts of your suicide and put it in a plastic bag or box so that if you were found, there would be no mystery. But otherwise, that sounds pretty awesome. Of course, if you were really sick, it might be hard to get yourself to a really remote location.

      • An additional problem — I’ve put some thought into this — is even if you go off-trail, your corpse is gonna be eaten by hungry mammals. So the bones might end up anywhere. You could laboriously stagger your sick, wheezing, vomiting-blood self half a mile from the trail, and then some damn bear will drag your femur right back to the trail.

        So it’s not a 100% solid idea. It does have appealing aspects. As for the note in a plastic bag, I always dreamed it’d read something like: “beware the MAD WOODS BLOWDART POISONER… he got me and YOU COULD BE NEXT… if you hear branches snapping behind you, it’s ALREADY TOO LATE!!!”

    • I’m an organ donor, but I fear it’s useless. Lungs: smoked. Eyes: always were shit. Liver: fuggitaboutit. I suppose the kidneys might be of some value. I do pee successfully at the moment.

      Years ago, I was trying to convince a co-worker to register for organ donation. She was very young, and from a very wealthy family, and very conservative. She was convinced that if she ever went in for surgery while being a registered donor, the hospital might kill her to harvest her squishy parts. Yes. Because this happens to rich people all the time.

      Oddly enough, she was also into Dickens and Austen. How can one be a conservative and be into those authors? Answer: don’t pay attention. I worked with her for a year and she never got past the same two books she’d alternate bringing to work. It almost seemed like her bookmarks were going backwards, closer to the front as the year progressed.

      Oh, well, that’s conservatives for ya. Have some badass Minnesota Mormon rockers, and happy holidays:

      • I don’t believe the “doctors killing to harvest organs” stuff, but I get kind of superstitious when I see a box saying “what should we do if you die?” It’s an inherently uncomfortable question. I wish the system were opt-out instead of opt-in.

        • Yes. Although I remember reading an article about how doctors answer questions about extreme measures to save their lives and they are much less keen on them than the rest of us — probably because they see how people end up. On the other hand, doctors are more interested in experimental therapies and such.

      • I think it is very easy to be a conservative and love Dickens. “Are there no prisons?” Rich conservatives are very proud of all the great things they provide the poor. And actually, Dickens makes conservatives feel good because things aren’t that bad. So the rich must be the reason.

        I’m an organ donor, but only because I like to disappoint people.

        That’s the least annoying version of “The Little Drummer Boy” I’ve ever heard apart from not listening to the song at all (the best alternative).

        • “Good news or bad news first?”

          “Good news!”

          “Righty-o! Well, the good news is we found you a stomach donor.”

          “Hooray!”

          “The bad news is it came from this guy Frank, who can’t tolerate any hot peppers.”

          “Please refill my morphine drip bag before you leave the room. And lock the door behind you.”

          Yeah, that song is ass. Just pandering pablum. Trust some Mormons to actually take it seriously. That’s the thing about Mormons — their theology is bonkers (what theology isn’t?), but they do tend to bestow it with grace and solemnity. 90% of evangelical voters punched “Trump.” Only 40% of Mormon voters did. Give credit where credit is due.

          And those are Mormons from Duluth! Duluth, to the uninitiated, is like the Twin Cities, with fewer jobs and shittier weather. It’s like the hind end of Hell. I’d love to retire there. You know how many Mormons there are in Duluth? I’m guessing the band Low makes up 20% of them. Whatever reason brought those artists to that religion (humans are mysterious creatures), social conformity sure wasn’t one of them.

          May they have the afterlife planet they dream of. In “Mort,” Death explains that this is, what in fact, happens, because IT’S JUST A LOT SIMPLER THAT WAY. I imagine their vision of Paradise is something like the following, and I cannot blame them. Duluth is nasty.

          https://youtu.be/XHQzQp5-r5s

          Note: this may be the worst Xmas song in all of human history. That’s what it’s great!

    • That sounds good. I wonder if you could get a permit to do that. I’m sure you could if you were willing to do it outside the US.

      • I mentioned it to my mom when telling her about you some today and she said that was illegal but I am sure I can find a loophole.

    • That’s darkly funny. And has pertinent info — it saddens, but not remotely surprises me, that corporations are taking over the field.

      Make sure you tell your loved ones how to deal with your death. And don’t get run over by a bus before you do so!

      • Oh, another thing I learned is that by California law, if you pay for funeral services ahead of time, the money is held in a trust. Apparently in the past, funeral homes were ripping off people. In some cases, it wasn’t on purpose — they just went out of business. Of course, you can see this information in a cynical way because it did make me think more seriously about paying for my death ahead of time.

        • *dumps you in the woods, waters the area around you a lot then sets you on fire*

          There that’s done. Now let’s go drink some heavy beers and cry over his 12K articles.

    • Actually, the guy at the funeral home told us almost everything in that video. He even said, more or less, “We are way cheaper than the corporate funeral homes, but we still make enough of a profit for me to support a wife and three kids.” He clearly had a problem with corporate funeral homes and talked about how they buy out small funeral homes and don’t indicate that they are owned by a corporation — other than doubling the prices. And we discussed how they are dealing with people when they are at their most vulnerable. He also said there were instances where you would want to embalm, but that it was really rare, and certainly ridiculous for cremations. Of course, maybe he looked up my name before I got there, found out that I was an anti-capitalist radical and was just playing me. But I actually think he was just proud of the company he worked for. And as I indicated, I think he was right to.

      Great video!

  2. This reminds me of The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s expose of the American funeral business. It was sort of hilarious in a gallows humor sort of way. A lot of the high costs involve actually preserving the body. There is a strand of American Christianity that has at least a folk belief in a resurrection of the body in the afterlife. As others have observed, it can be a fantastically comforting belief, particularly when burying a child. There was at least one law suit described in the book in which one guy had paid top dollar to preserve his mother, but after an exhumation it turned out that her corpse had decayed. I’m not sure how it was settled.

    My favorite burial story is my lawyer’s. His parents had their ashes buried in a massive concrete vault on their land near their house in the country. The idea was to force him and his sister to keep and maintain the property. They sold it. One of the conditions of the sale was the removal of the vault and ashes. He and his sister had one of those great family bonding experiences with a rented jack hammer. You can’t make this kind of thing up. I had my own experiences with my father’s estate. My sister and I got to explore the arcana of our legal system. No jackhammers for us, more pulling bureaucratic teeth. You could probably do a television show about a group of professional executors.

    Our family believes in cremation. One option you didn’t mention is a cardboard coffin. That’s usually the cheapest. I assume there are size and weight limits, kind of like on the airlines. Also interesting is that cremation prices haven’t really gone up much in the last 20 years.

    • “Family bonding experiences with a rented jackhammer.” Brilliant!

      Those are really the best family bonding experiences, as you know. Everyone being solemn at Aunt Mabel’s funeral isn’t a bonding experience. Uncle Teddy getting drunk, knocking over the coffin, scattering the possums gnawing on Aunt Mabel’s arm, and her glass eye rolling on the floor where a toddler swallows it, and you have to take the toddler to the ER– that’s bonding!

  3. Wish I could have helped with navigating the arrangements.

    I was introduced to the funeral industry upon the day of my father passing in my arms.
    I didn’t know who the people were who came or where they were taking dad, so Mom gave me their card.
    Later, when I went to the local funeral home to inquire about the process and what arrangements had been made, I found myself presented with a job offer.
    ponder. Somewhere I suppose it must say I must not be the person typing my own fathers death certificate info for submission to the County.
    I was hired because the owner of the removal company had a contract with the Coroners Office and his son was not ‘of age’ to sign toe tags. Probably, my look conveyed my joblessness.
    The gig only lasted a few months, but was odd and one of those things you go in thinking, ‘I could never do that.’
    And something you think would be straight forward, but its got a lot of facets to it.
    Jessica M. was indeed writing a followup work to American Way of Death, with the assistance of a mutual friends wife (who was running a Funeral Society)….and I was invited to contribute to the book.
    Ms Mitford herself passed while the project was still in the works and I shy’d away from writing about things I was more comfortable trying to bury…….unintentional word choice.
    For the most part, if one can find a REAL funeral society, that is something work joining as it involves a lot of consumer advocacy. Most, however, are also run by the industry….service corporation international……scary folks.

    • I knew you worked in the industry, but your stories always involved transport — I assume that’s the most exciting part of the job. I’m somewhat attracted to the job overall. It seems like the kind of job that has to be done carefully and right. That’s something we don’t find much in modern business. I’m not talking about transport, of course. That part of the job is lampooned pretty well in Bubba Ho-Tep.

      • Yeah, so the job was really three things: Transportation (long hauls to get them to where they are going), discreet removal and delivery to a mortuary or full check-in at the County Coroners Office (logging in, bagging and toe-tagging) and acting as Assistant Funeral Director.

        People always assumed we did cremations at the mortuary. Maybe that was partly because the building had previously been EZ Pizza (where I also had worked, running a conveyor pizza oven in what became the embalming room).
        Uncomfortably, the walk-in cooler was indeed the same in which I had stored shredded cheese and sauce, under the previous employer.

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