The Movement to Bring Death Closer – The New York Times

Posted By on December 20, 2019

But no change has been as threatening as cremation. In 1980, less than 10 percent of dead bodies in the United States were cremated. Last year that number reached 53 percent, and by 2035, the N.F.D.A. expects it to climb to 80 percent. The largest corporate funeral business, Service Corporation International, boasts about its strategy to presell cemetery spaces to people in their late 50s and early 60s, when, given the trends, the likelihood is that many of those same people will opt for cremation or other greener options by the time they die.

People prefer cremation for many reasons, including that funerals with cremation are about 40 percent less expensive than conventional ones, which typically cost just over $9,000, in addition to grave and cemetery fees. Cremation is also somewhat environmentally kinder, though it releases greenhouse gases into the air.

For family funeral-home owners, most of whom are not getting rich, cremation cuts deeply into revenues. Theyve tried to compensate, in part, by selling personalization: legacy videos, memorial fingerprints of the dead stamped in stone, in stationery, in jewelry. Urns in the shape of hearts, angels and butterflies, as well as teddy bears, mallard ducks and cowboy boots, carved images on caskets, MemorySafe Drawers that tuck into caskets to hold letters, photos and other mementos for the dead.

The industry is more conservative, though, when it comes to families taking personal control of their dead. Most funeral homes are well intentioned, and they dont want to change because they sincerely believe they know better than we do about how to grieve, says Tanya Marsh, the law professor. In part, funeral homes and the public are hindered by laws from 100 years ago, when embalming and full-service funerals were central. That means that in most states, a young funeral director who doesnt want to include embalming in her business still has to go through training and do an apprenticeship. Many states also require all funeral homes to install expensive embalming facilities.

For consumers, some of the legal constraints can seem exasperating. Family members can drive their dead mother to her burial plot in California, but they cant in New York and Connecticut. By law, a funeral professional has to do it. Also, in some states, only funeral directors can file a death certificate (which typically has to be done within 72 hours of death). In Nebraska and in New York, which Marsh says has the most extensive funeral and cemetery regulations in the country, funeral staff also must be present for a burial. And if a body has to cross state lines from Alabama to Mississippi for burial, it must be embalmed first. As Josh Slocum, head of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a watchdog and educational group, and an author, with Lisa Carlson, of the book Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death, says, The funeral-industry lobbyists have a stronghold on legislation.

The industry also has taken on competitors, no matter how small. About a decade ago, Louisianas state Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors issued a cease-and-desist order to a group of Benedictine monks after they began making and selling cypress caskets to support the monastery. At the time, the caskets retailed for $1,500 to $2,000, less expensive than many others. The state board argued that only funeral directors are allowed to sell funeral merchandise in order to protect consumers. The monks sued. And in 2013, in a case that the industry fought all the way to the Supreme Court (the court refused to hear it), the monks won.

Around that same time, Pennsylvanias board of funeral directors filed two complaints against Daniel Wasserman, a rabbi in Pittsburgh who performed funerals according to Orthodox Jewish custom: bathing and dressing and helping bury the bodies of his congregants. The state claimed he violated the Funeral Director Law by conducting funerals without a license and threatened to sue. Similar state laws prevent home-funeral guides, unless they have a funeral directors license (and some do), from touching dead bodies for payment (many charge a consultation fee or accept contributions from families), lest it be construed as acting as a funeral director and practicing without a license.

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The Movement to Bring Death Closer - The New York Times

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