Economics

Better Off Dead

The cheap, exciting afterlife of modern mortal remains

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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. 

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