Better Off Dead

The cheap, exciting afterlife of modern mortal remains

A stainless steel casket with cherry veneer inserts can set you back more than a foreclosed townhouse in the exurbs of Las Vegas. Then there’s the embalming, the funeral service, the cemetery plot, the headstone, the charge for digging a grave, the charge for filling that grave back up, the eternal lawn-mowing and weeding fees. These days, millions of us can’t afford to die, much less spend our afterlives slumbering in a suitable memorial property of our own. Instead, in this age of widening income disparity, all that most of us can hope for is two and a half hours in an 1,800 degree oven, then a time-shared hereafter on the living-room mantels of our surviving relatives, homeless for eternity in a discount keepsake urn. 

This, at least, was the spin The New York Times gave to the rising popularity of cremation in a December 2011 article titled “In Tough Times, a Boom in Cremations as a Way to Save Money.” According to the Cremation Association of North America, an industry trade group, 41 percent of the approximately 2.4 million people who die each year in the U.S. choose cremation over a traditional burial. The Times suggested the poor economy was partly responsible for this trend. To support this conclusion, the article quoted a handful of funeral directors and cited a “national telephone survey of 858 adults” that the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, an industry group, commissioned in 2010, finding that “one-third of those who chose cremation in 2010 said cost was a primary factor, up from 19 percent in 1990.”

It was a rather funereal way of interpreting what is in fact great news. As the Times itself noted, the turn toward cremation is a long-term trend. According to Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero, author of the 2002 book Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America, the national cremation rate stalled at around 3.7 percent from 1945 to 1962. Then, in 1963, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death and Ruth Mulvey Harmer published The High Cost of Dying. Thanks in part to these exposés, changing standards of taste, and growing environmental concerns, the U.S. cremation rate began an upswing that has persisted, through economic booms and busts, for the last 50 years. In 1985, it hit 15 percent. In 2000, it was 25.5 percent. By 2025, the Cremation Association predicts, it will be 56 percent. And what all this steady, uninterrupted growth ultimately suggests is not that we have fewer and fewer choices regarding our final send-offs, but that we have more.

The idea that the funeral industry is out to torch us financially is forever young. The average funeral director, Emily Post wrote in her 1922 book Etiquette, “will, if not checked, bring the most ornate and expensive casket in his establishment. He will perform every rite that his professional ingenuity for expenditure can devise.” In the late 1930s, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) waged a war against casket manufacturers who misleadingly claimed that their metal vaults could offer airtight, leakproof, indestructible protection for eternity. In 1949, Life magazine reported, five Protestant ministers from Portland, Oregon, publicly castigated funerals of that era for their “ostentation,” “artificial expense,” and tendency to privilege the funeral parlor and the mortician—that is, the secular world and its commercialized, materialist trappings—over the church and the pastor.

Like the Protestant ministers, Jessica Mitford was offended by the increasing materialism of midcentury funerary customs. But as Prothero suggests in Purified by Fire, her umbrage had its roots in economic and aesthetic sentiments rather than religious ones. Ko-Zee burial slippers and French provincial caskets tricked out with Beautyrama Adjustable Soft-Foam beds weren’t just overpriced, they were tacky. In Mitford’s estimation, essentially, the funeral industry circa 1963 was marked by too much choice, too much marketing, too much catering to individual taste.

But if the intervening 50 years have taught us anything, it’s that 1963’s corpses were woefully underserved. Sure, the “1 percent” of that era could afford stunning crypts and mausoleums that were far more lavish and better appointed than the homes most of us spend our lives in. For everyone else, however, death was a homogenizing force more ruthless than any communist regime. Everyone who died got an overpriced casket, an awful post-mortem makeover, and a bland grave marker immortalizing them in the same conventionally abstract fashion as everyone else who had died that century. 

Now, we’ve got caskets that look like beer cans, headstones shaped like teddy bears, companies that will provision your loved ones with white doves to release graveside. Major League Baseball teams, many colleges, and the rock band KISS, among others, license their logos for use on caskets. 

As the number of afterlife options expands, prices are dropping. For years only licensed funeral directors could sell caskets, a practice that kept prices artificially high. According to a 1988 FTC study, the average price of a casket in 1981 was $1,010, or $2,513 in 2011 dollars. In 1984, however, Congress passed the Funeral Rule, which in part requires that funeral homes accept a casket purchased from a third-party provider without charging any additional fees. 

In some states, local laws continue to trump the Funeral Rule. In the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth District, for example, an abbey of Benedictine monks is currently challenging the constitutionality of a Louisiana state law that restricts the sale of “funeral merchandise” to licensed funeral establishments. (The monks would like to sell handmade wooden coffins directly to the public but have no interest in taking on other funerary services such as embalming or transporting bodies.) 

In states unimpeded by the sort of economic protectionism the monks are seeking to abolish, the Web has had a dramatic impact on casket prices. The wholesale discounter Costco has been selling caskets on its website since 2004, with the least expensive model going for just $949. Caskets by Design, a company based in Caldwell, Idaho, will sell you a simple pine box casket, unfinished and unlined, for $499. Thanks to retailers like these, consumers in many states can now easily buy a casket that’s five times cheaper than the average price paid in 1981.

And of course they can easily spend more as well—a “Premium” KISS casket, for example, goes for $3,999. It’s hard to imagine, however, that many people choose to spend eternity in a shiny metal tomb emblazoned with the grimacing mug of Gene Simmons because of high-pressure mortuary sales tactics or perceived notions of appropriate funerary decorum. They do it because, amidst the proliferation of potential options, that’s what appeals to them most.

The same holds true, no doubt, for cremation, which certainly seems more aligned with contemporary values than traditional burial. Why go through the expensive pretense of preserving one’s corpse against the inevitable ravages of death when we now know that a person’s Facebook page is the true seat of his soul? Once upon a time people used marble headstones to ensure their presence in the world would persist after they had departed. Now, they leave behind an eternal legacy of Flickr sets and Yelp reviews.

Get buried in a cemetery, and all you’re doing is consigning yourself for eternity to the place where we ghettoize dead people. Get cremated, and you preserve your mobility. Part of you can set up camp on your favorite mountaintop in Utah. Another part can stay close to your loved ones above the fireplace. Another part can be blasted into space, or turned into an artificial reef off the coast of Florida, or transformed into a pair of simulated diamond earrings. Whatever variation one chooses, the metaphorical cachet is obvious. Instead of being stuck in an airtight casket, static and out of the loop, a sedentary shell of your former self, you metamorphasize into something new, dynamic, perpetually connected, eternally in the mix. In all of human history, there has never been a better time to die. 

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Suki||

    The KISS casket! I LOVED the week long bit a Gene Simmons impersonator did about that on the Howard Stern show.

  • Suki||

  • Citizen Nothing||

    I want my cremains baked into bricks and thrown through the windows of the statehouse.
    You're all invited.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    And if the rest of you can run faster than White Indian, then, BONUS!

  • Jeffersonian||

    I don't know about faster, but I know I won't be winded after 25 yards.

  • ||

    Surely you meant 25 inches?

  • Jeffersonian||

    I wanted to give Wide Indian the benefit of the doubt.

  • ||

    They'll just use taxpayer money to repair the damage.

    Wait, are you a federal agent provocateur? *Squints intently*.

  • Krugman||

    Exactly! Think of all the jobs it will create!

  • Citizen Krugman||

    Curses! I woulda gotten away with it, too, if not for you meddling kids and Res Publica!

  • ||

    It's another one of Emperor Barack I Obama's jobs initiatives. Break those windows with bricks, or prepare for the Predator drones.

  • Restoras||

    Winner. Just awesome.

  • ||

    I'm in. I'd love to take that one to a jury trial. No plea deal on this one.

  • ||

    I want my remains to be secretly fed to my enemies in hope that they choke.

  • o3||

    personally i wanna be cremated then incorporated into ariel pyrotechnics for my friends n family to enjoy at my blow-out wake...all courtesy of my estate!

  • Citizen Gonzo||

    Hunter? Is that you?

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Speaking of which -- riddle me this, SF. How come your town has museums, tributes and giant Mao-sized posters all over town for its favorite sons and daughters -- Muhammad Ali, Colonel Saunders, Diane freaking Sawyer -- but nothing for HST?

  • ||

    I do not live in Louisville and resent the implication. We are the bitterest of enemies henceforth.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    It's on.

  • WTF||

    ariel pyrotechnics

    Why do you want to blow up the Little Mermaid?

  • Dekedin||

    I want my cremated remains to be mixed with coke and snorted by some random junkie on the street.

  • Brian D||

    Meh. Drop my body from a helicopter into an already active volcano.

  • ||

    I want to live forever. Only pussies accept death's inevitability. *Shades*.

  • da grin reaper||

    wait right there lil res
    got something for ya

  • Brian D||

    THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!

  • ||

    "No, Frylock. The Highlander was a documentary, and the events occurred in real time."

  • sarcasmic||

    I bet you think you can avoid taxes as well.

  • Jeffersonian||

    I want a Big Green Egg casket.

  • Restoras||

    I want my cremains divided equally into 535 envelopes and then mailed to each member of CONgress.

  • ||

    When I die, I want the mourning ceremony to last an entire year. I want a 100 people put to death to attend my journey to the afterworld. I want my brains pulled out through my nose, and my body cavities stuffed with hemp leaves and honey (please note - this is to be done AFTER I am dead). My mortal remains should be placed in a $20,000 pyramid, to be looted soon after my burial.

  • scribe o3||

    arent sheep involved?
    and nubians...bring-on teh nubians!

  • Doctor Whom||

    I am a man of simple tastes. Just get me this.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jade_burial_suit

  • horselips||

    You could always go with something like this:

    http://www.thegoldencasket.com/home.php

  • ||

    Blast her tacky hide to Hades!

  • Dick Clark||

    Things that are not going to happen. 30 seconds.

  • ChrisO||

    I want my survivors to spend as little as possible on disposing of my body. I'd rather they spend the money on a great "going away" party instead.

  • hector||

    who cares.
    have insurance cover it all

  • horselips||

    Caskets by Design, a company based in Caldwell, Idaho, will sell you a simple pine box casket, unfinished and unlined, for $499.

    These are also a great pre-mortem investment. It makes an excellent practice bench for a guitar player, with the added bonus of being able to store your music and other accessories in it, all in addition to being an unusual conversation piece. It's come in so handy I may even get a couple more of them. You can always use another coffee table.

  • Appalachian Australian||

    Does it also come in handy for when you need to hide from sunlight?

  • o3||

    i had to have one made for my dad, God rest him, since he wanted to be buried like ike (he served in ww2)...plus no embalming & no display.
    >the funeral home acted like i was crazy.

  • Zeb||

    Good. Fuck those parasites.

  • ||

    Of course, I want my ashes used to smother, to death, the last of an endangered species. Talk about leaving my mark on Eternity!

  • ||

    What is the Pauper's Grave nowadays? Pauper's Crematoria?

  • ||

    Get the cheapest johnboat you can find. Put me in it and pour the cheapest accelerant you can find on top of me. Push me out from the beachhouse and light me on fire. Tell stories on me until the boat breaks up then let the party begin.

  • omnibot||

    My request is to be entombed in a 16,000sq ft mausoleum built over an endangered wetland.

  • ||

    My death requests are 2-fold:

    1) All usable organs are sold on the black market.

    2) The proceeds from the sales are then used to turn my corpse into a giant pinata, to be opened at the ensuing wake. The pinata-me is to be stuffed with candy for the kids, and mini liquor bottles & dime bags for the adults.

  • ||

    In the 70's the FTC claimed authority over the funeral trade based on Interstate Commerce, even though funeral homes rarely involve interstate commerce. The FTC solicited complaints (some paid)for events spanning a TEN YEAR period and came up with less that a thousand, nationwide. Most had been properly adjuticated under fraud statutes. Under the FTC Rule, funeral homes are held to rules and regulations more onerous than auto repairmen, lawyers, used car salesmen, or any other segment I'm aware of.
    I studied this FTC case in college and have been ever shocked that it withstood any Constitutional challange, allthough I realize the funeral industry is minute with little lobby to bankroll such a challange.
    Like it or hate it, the funeral industry took one in the shorts by liberal big government and in doing so set Interstate Commerce precedents that will continue to haunt us all.

  • ||

    I'll never understand what motivates anyone to spend copious amounts of perfectly good money on a dead body. If you're religious, you believe the person's soul/essence/spirit/whatever has gone on to bigger and better things, and if you're not religious, what is there to revere about a carcass?

  • shrike||

    Britain Deserves Better

  • ||

    I want my body to be chained to a reef in a popular snorkeling spot. Then I can scare children even in death!

  • ||

    You know I think what I want to be done would be even cheaper than the options presented here. However for some reason I don't think the national park service would like the idea of someone leaving a body to be eaten by scavengers in the forest.

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

  • tipuasher||

    This editorial is very informative. Glad you collective it with s. Thanks!
    http://SkyBuilt.biz

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