Columns > Published on April 14th, 2015

LURID: Death Becomes Her

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Where is Death on your ‘To Do’ list? You may have completed your 2014 returns for the IRS, but are you prepared for the other final accounting? Are you pretending it’s never going to happen to you – well, not for a long time yet, anyway – or do you maintain a ‘Super-Cute Caskets’ Pinterest board to monitor the latest trends? Have you asked your nearest and dearest to abandon your corpse in the nearest dumpster, or do you have your dream funeral (including vendors and venues) pre-paid? Or, like most of us, do you lack any kind of plan?

We like to disassociate ourselves from death.  If at all possible, we stuff the relevant paperwork in a drawer until the looming deadline forces its retrieval.  It has become a bloated, over-complicated process, and, where once we handled the details ourselves, at home, we fork out large sums of money to professionals to deal with the intricacies on our behalf. 

Has the time come for some research?  Perhaps tomorrow, as you skulk around town claiming your Tax Day Freebies, you could signal how responsible you are being about The Other Great Certainty by reading up on how to die in America today.

'The American Way of Death' (1963/1998)

A good place to start is Jessica Mitford’s exposé of the funeral services industry, first published in 1963 then updated in 1998.  The book was wildly influential, changing attitudes (especially towards cremation) and legislation (it’s now up to you what happens to your cremains), but some of the worst practices continue unchecked to this day. Mitford came from a scandal-ridden upper class British family.  Her sisters Unity and Diana were best known for their support of Hitler, fascism and the National Socialist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. Jessica, the ‘red sheep’ of the family, took the opposite track, moving to America, becoming a communist, and throwing herself into the civil rights crusade. 

She also campaigned for unions, and was part of the struggle to guarantee death benefits for workers killed on the job.  This brought her into contact with shady funeral directors, all too adept at relieving widows unused to handling large sums of money of the entirety of their compensation. She quotes the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Digest report on insurance payouts in the state of New York in 1958:

…insurance carriers paid out $11,914,349 to the beneficiaries of deceased workers. Seventy five percent, or some eight million dollars, of that amount was siphoned off by the undertakers… Without perhaps realizing it, organized labor, through its many welfare and pension plans, is thus helping to subsidize the burial industry.

She started probing the abuses with a magazine article, Saint Peter Don’t You Call Me, and was encouraged by the public’s interest in the most mysterious subject of funeral costs.  Her full-length investigation was a bestseller and has been in print ever since.

Although there have been a few legislative changes, the modern funeral industry is still deeply problematic. Mitford traces its roots to the mid-nineteenth century. A man who had been expelled from medical school for his careless attitude to corpses (he left body parts lying around in inappropriate places) hit on the idea of extending that temporary state. Embalming was an ancient process, but no one had seen any point in doing it for thousands of years. However, “Doctor” Thomas Holmes saw a prime business opportunity on the carcass-strewn battlefields of the American Civil War. 

The sheer number of young men dying a long way from home (23,000 died in one day during the Battle of Antietam in September 1862) precipitated a body disposal crisis. Railroad companies refused to transport the fetid, blackened, maggot-ridden corpses unless they were sealed in an expensive iron casket.  Holmes offered a quickie solution: embalming by draining the blood and injecting his patented mix of preservative chemicals into the veins instead.  He called the fluid Innominata. Holmes (swiftly followed by competitors), set up tents on the battlefields, and processed thousands of corpses at $100 a pop so they could be sent home to mothers and wives.  He retired a very wealthy man.

The embalmers didn’t hang up their needles and pipes once the war was over.  Instead, they worked to create a lucrative market for their services, persuading the American public that embalming was a necessary, hygienic process, a vital part of the sanitization of a corpse.  The embalmers encouraged a new reverence for the dearly departed. Rather than regarding the body as a discarded object to be stuck in the ground before it started to stink, they placed it front and center of the grieving.  That’s where you (or your family) start paying. 

Homes for the future dead. A mausoleum under construction, April 2015
Homes for the future dead. A mausoleum under construction, April 2015

Magical potions arrest decomposition, extending the form and illusion of life, if not the vital spark.  In lieu of a swift exit, we opt for a long goodbye, with a chance for all interested parties to pay their respects.  Perhaps inspired by the popularity of post-mortem photography, someone in the nascent funeral industry coined the term “memory picture” to describe the last impression of the deceased.  Why remember a laughing, loving, living being, when your final recall could be a slab of dead meat in a crate?

Naturally the corpse, guest of honor at the funeral party, has to be gussied up. Once the loved ones agree to embalming, formaldehyde is just one item on the bill.  In order to achieve that “resting in peace” look, the corpse has to be gutted, body cavities packed, limbs wired into place, then put through full hair and make up and dressed in a suit or dress slit up the back. Then, this marvel of modern technology needs a display box.  The satin-lined, high gloss, embellished (e.g. with the logo of your favorite baseball team or a photograph of the Pope) casket comes in your choice of mahogany or polished brass, complete with premium swing bar handles and a hinged lid.  Even the cheapest plastic option available at Walmart will set you back a thousand bucks.

Back in the day, a plain wooden box, containing an untreated corpse swathed in a cotton shroud was the last word in biodegradable. Today’s polyester-wrapped, chemical-soaked, fake-tanned cadaver is designed to last, safe inside its airtight canister and afforded the additional protection of a concrete or plastic grave liner encasing it under the grassy sod.  If your Fear Of Missing Out extends to the zombie apocalypse, be assured that your mortal remains will remain intact.  Kinda sorta. Unfortunately, these protective measures offer no guarantee of continuing in death as you were in life. Anaerobic bacteria might still reduce you to toxic soup – here’s hoping your solid steel casket won’t spring a leak, or even explode.

The median cost of an American funeral in 2012 (according to the National Funeral Directors Association) was $8,343.  That’s before your casket is carried through the cemetery gates, where you’ll spunk anything from $300 (in a public cemetery) to $12,000 (a lawn crypt in a tony private location) for the plot, plus monument costs.  Cremation is a lot cheaper, but you’ll face refrigeration costs until a slot opens up at your local crematorium, and you may be tempted to splurge on a fancy urn or a ‘garden view’ mausoleum shelf.

Mitford brings a glorious sense of righteous outrage to the material, stemming from a deeply held conviction that the American Way of Death is a contrivance from beginning to end.  She tears through the veil of secrecy protecting the goings on behind mortuary doors to examine in detail every aspect of the funeral business, from the initial transaction with grieving relatives to the long-term upkeep of cemeteries. At each step someone (or some corporation) is creaming off a profit, selling goods and services for which there is no real need – and selling them at an inflated price.  She crunches the numbers on up-sold caskets, post-mortem glamour makeovers and double occupancy graves.  She interviews captains of the industry, leading lights in the various Funeral Directors Associations, and finds their answers “something less than enlightening”.

'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' & 'Other Lessons from the Crematory' (2014)

After The American Way of Death prompted an investigation, the Federal Trade Commission required funeral directors to list prices for cremation alongside burial options and the practice, which had been increasing in popularity throughout the first half of the twentieth century, literally caught fire.  The percentage of bodies cremated as opposed to buried has been growing ever since.  In 1960, around 3.6% of all deaths were disposed of by cremation.  The projected figure for 2015 is 48.2%.

After completing her degree in medieval history in the mid-2000s, Caitlin Doughty joined the small army of workers devoted to this manner of disposal of the dead. She took a job as a crematory assistant at a place she calls “Westwind” in Oakland, California, administering to the final needs of six bodies a day (more if you include the infants) before they were consigned to the flames. Her pithy and poignant memoir charts her experiences from raw recruit to industry innovator, applying her medievalist’s awareness of history and context to modern day cultural practices surrounding the dead.  By turns funny, raw and philosophical, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes deserves its bestseller status.

Although she writes half a century later, Doughty shares many of Mitford’s concerns about the abuses perpetuated by the funeral industry, most of them stemming from the central lie that a corpse is an unsanitary, dangerous thing, only to be handled by rubber-suited professionals.  How many of you have ever seen, touched, laid out a corpse? She expresses unease at the way grieving families are encouraged to hand their loved one over to a funeral director and relinquish all real contact and control – as well as paying through the nose for the privilege.  By denying death its rightful place as a counterbalance to our embrace of life, we may be doing permanent damage to our collective psyche. Doughty writes:

…I went from thinking it was strange that we don’t see dead bodies any more to believing their absence was a root cause of major problems in the modern world.

Corpses keep the living tethered to reality.  I had lived my entire life until I began working at Westwind relatively corpse-free.  Now I had access to scores of them – stacked in the crematory freezer.  They forced me to face my own death and the deaths of those I loved. No matter how much technology may become our master, it takes only a human corpse to toss the anchor off that boat and pull us back down to the firm knowledge that we are glorified animals that eat and shit and are doomed to die. We are all just future corpses.

If you’re unfamiliar with Doughty’s fabulous YouTube channel, Ask A Mortician, go there right now for answers to burning questions such as Are Those Really My Mother’s Ashes? And Where Have All The Corpses Gone?  And you should also check out her Order of The Good Death, dedicated to exploring and promoting a more comfortable relationship between the living and their future corpse selves.

'Stiff – The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers' (2003)

If you’re going to end up as a corpse, you may as well read up on what to expect after death.  In Stiff, Mary Roach explores what happens to the human body after the spark of life is extinguished.  If nothing interferes with the process, decay begins with autolysis (self-digestion of cells), then bacteria begin their feast, causing bloat, which is followed by putrefaction.  The human body offers a smorgasbord of delights for all kinds of insects and microbes, and, when it finally disintegrates, releases all sorts of valuable nutrients back into the ground.

A corpse, however, isn’t just valued for its qualities as fertilizer. Roach outlines the different ways in which cadavers provide vital services to living human beings. They are us and not us, identical in every way but one. They are invaluable for scientific research and training.  We’d have no skilled surgeons without them. They also provide essential data for car manufacturers, serving as crash test dummies, and for law enforcement, teaching valuable lessons about the effects of bullets and bombs.  They uphold the truth, revealing critical clues about fatalities from air crashes to accidental poisonings.  Their similarities to us are key to our understanding of causes of death: their one great difference teaches about causes of life, how to define it, when to declare it over, and how to maintain the paradoxical state in between, the brain death of the beating-heart cadaver.

Roach argues that, far from fearing corpses, or denying we will ever become one, we should consider post-mortem options such as organ donation, or offering our bodies up for scientific experimentation, or even plastination.  Once we have no more need of them, the head, shoulders, knees and toes that have served us so well may go on to be equally useful to others.

'Working Stiff' (2014)

We permitted the funeral industry to turn the ‘What’ of death into a big, expensive mystery, to be avoided and unquestioned.  In truth, the only mystery surrounds the ‘How’. Few of us can predict the manner (classified as natural or unnatural) or cause of our death. It’s a far-off blur that will come into sharp focus one day, perhaps slowly, through a terminal diagnosis, or instantaneous, in the turn towards a speeding bullet.  While pondering the difference between respiring and putrefying cells, it’s worth considering how quickly, and randomly, your state can change.

Judy Melinek’s memoir, Working Stiff – Two Years, 262 Bodies, And The Making of A Medical Examiner charts her experiences working as a forensic pathologist in New York. There are many ways to die in a big city. Bodies are brought from all over town so Dr. Melinek can categorize the ‘How’ on the death certificate. She has to decide whether it was natural or unnatural (accident, murder, suicide), then nail down exactly what caused the victim to stop breathing. She deals with unforeseeable accidents, from a hit-and-run to a rogue egg roll machine, as well as deaths that might have been prevented or postponed, such as drug overdoses, heart attacks, alcohol poisoning, and cot deaths.

Melinek was walking the final block to work on the morning of September 11, 2001, when a “too-loud whistle of jet engines” turned her head. Thinking nothing of it, she continued to her office.  Her account of that day, the hours and hours of waiting for the first bodies to arrive, the horror of seeing that the incident prefix DM01 had six digits following it (the office had to be prepared to receive up to a hundred thousand body parts), the overwhelming sense of tragedy on seeing the first, pulverized corpse, is harrowing.  She would end up processing around 600 cases – none of whom had any inkling they would die that day. Sometimes you have to read a book about dying to remind yourself to get busy living.

Once, death occurred in the province of the living, in the same bedchamber, on the same bedsheets as birth.  The same hands that washed the placenta from a newborn wiped clean the orifices of the dead, and, with the same tenderness shown when swaddling an infant, wrapped the corpse in its final cloth.  The rituals of transition were simple, domestic: candles, rosemary for remembrance, and wailing women.  The corpse was swiftly, respectfully disposed of, a cast-off shell returned to the basic carbon forms of our planet thanks to the miraculous process of decay.

Perhaps we can get back to that? Thanks to the work done by the writers (all female) of this selection of books, along with many others, the American way of death is undergoing a process of demystification.  Thanks also to the Internet, to globalization, to the freer flow of people and ideas, we’re finding new ways to mark our passing (‘In Memoriam’ Facebook pages, selfies taken with a post mortem loved one) and dispose of our remains (liquid cremation, mushroom death suits) that bypass the costly processes foisted on us by the funeral industry for so long.  It’s time to shed the denial, to stop pushing death into the undiscover'd country.  If you can do your taxes, you can acknowledge your mortality and start planning for the inevitable. Being human is a temporary state of existence, and we should be glad it ends in merciful disintegration, ashes to ashes, stardust to the stardust from whence we came.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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