Merchants of death

Merchants of death
Photo courtesy of Kenneth Chou

Death has never looked so good: glistening new cadillac hearses, intricately carved tombstones and painfully polished mosaic urns line the convention center aisles. In a corner booth, concrete angels with soft, haunting gazes look up and out–guaranteed to catch an eye or two in any cemetery plot. Ghostly mannequins, sporting freshly pressed black suits, show off this year’s couture for the coffin. Clean hems hover inches above the floor. Propped up caskets, hand carved and personally finished, are garnished with metallic foil and lavish prints. They scream: who says I can’t take it with me when I go?

The lights overhead burn a bright fluorescent white–everything sparkles. Glossy banners and signs are equally blinding; rightfully so, the place is littered with them. Big names like Spencer and Batesville loom around every corner. Their products reflect back flashbulbs as cameras click. The carpet, of course, is a deep blood red. Buyers and sellers pace up and down it. They wander through the cluttered rows; a sea of faded ties, slicked back hair and matching dark suit combinations. A few charcoal pencil skirts sway by.

This is business after all. Like any other sales conference, promises are made; products are pushed. Have you seen our environmentally friendly embalming fluid? Take a look at these memorial boxes! Who wouldn’t want to wear some of their loved one’s ashes in our engraved lockets?

These pieces make up a relatively ordinary Funeral Exposition; a style of meeting industry insiders are more than comfortable with. Events, much like this, take place all over the world: in Bologna, Las Vegas, and here now in Toronto. They’re designed to bring funeral owners and vendors together.

Rene De Diego remembers his first. Bright eyed–a big smile plastered on his face–he manned a small booth.

“I’m talking and making some good connections, but then following up funeral owners are saying, yup thanks for the information, nope that’s great, that’s awesome, and then you can hear the crickets,” says De Diego.

He’s the owner of a British Columbia based memorial service; one of many trying to blow the funeral industry open in response to the homogenization of death practices.

De Diego’s company, Ashes to Diamonds, converts cremated human remains into sparkling lab grown gems–a process that, to the layman, sounds plagiarized from the pages of a science fiction novel. And yet it’s a real option; one that requires 450 grams of human ash, and takes up to ten months to complete. To kick it all off, cremains are turned into crystallized graphite. Next, pressure and high heat are added. Finally, you have your diamonds.

Out of the ordinary perhaps, but in light of more recent memorial choices Ashes to Diamonds isn’t all that odd. From clown sendoffs, to drive-thru eulogies, saying goodbye to a loved one has taken on some pretty unorthodox shades in the twenty first century. Strippers dance in skimpy outfits alongside caskets in Taiwan. Families, all over the United States, purchase airbrushed, mural style, coffins with images like massive American flags, the band KISS and even Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer. Celestis Inc. launches cremated remains into the lower hemisphere of earth’s orbit twice a year via a space shuttle.

“A lot of these funeral homes are family owned businesses… you’re going in and saying, I kind of want to rock your world, but if people want to do it they’re going to do it,” says De Diego.

It’s a resolve he knows a little something about.

Years ago, when De Diego’s grandfather Henry died; he was faced with a rather unusual predicament. Henry’s second wife, and recent widow, couldn’t bring herself to pick up his ashes from the funeral home. Instead, she left all decisions and arrangements to De Diego–a weighty responsibility.

“So, I took his ashes home, and my wife was like, what’s that? And I’m like, uh, that’s just Henry. I thought, what am I going to do with this?” says De Diego.

After months of tedious research he locked in on memorial diamonds. At the time however, Switzerland was the only country that offered the service. De Diego’s stomach turned at the thought of shipping his grandfather’s ashes so far. Instead, he flew over with them in tow, and personally oversaw the entire process. It wasn’t long after this trip that he brought the business model back to Canada.

“The reason I went into it is the same reason I’m in it today. I think it’s a wonderful memorial choice,” says De Diego.

Of course, not everyone is interested in funerals with pizzazz. No, for some, death should take on more subtle notes; subtler even than foiled coffins and rotating urns.

“People get it. Old, young, and in between. To them it just makes sense,” says Janet McCausland on her success in greening up the funeral industry.

As an employee for the Natural Burial Association of Canada she promotes low impact burials, which include easily decomposable wood coffins, and a total lack of embalming fluids. Formaldehyde is a big no-no. Bodies are buried on sites that look a lot like open fields or parks, sometimes even a meadow if you’re lucky. There are no headstones and no big monuments–just nature.

“When we started talking to funeral directors and cemetery folks about natural burial they all said oh, what a great idea, but there’s no market for it, ” says McCausland.

In the beginning, gaining any sort of traction was difficult. Funeral home owners had the same criticism for McCausland as they did for De Diego–how many people would possibly choose this over a traditional chapel sendoff? As it turns out, quite a number. With a handful of natural burial sites in Canada already, including the first Ontario plot in Cobourg, and an annex in Mount Pleasant, it’s a growing movement–its biggest successes coming from targeting aging environmentalists and activists. For them, there’s no other burial choice quite like it. As McCausland says, “Once a cemetery, always a cemetery.” Through each death a piece of shared green space is protected forever.

“It just made sense to us to talk to converted environmentalists first. I mean, the story is so good,” says McCausland.

At the forefront of this movement is Ithaca, a small county in upstate New York. Its natural burial plot, Greensprings, looks like a rolling meadow. Long grass grows between scattered rocks. Wildflowers dot the landscape with bursts of purple. Even in the winter, when the ground is heavy with permafrost and all vegetation curls back, families and friends bundle up and make the trek. For many in the county a funeral isn’t something that’s done behind closed doors, or arranged by a select few–it’s a community affair.

So, when one of their own, Peter DeMott, died–an anti-war activist best known for driving a truck into a trident submarine–300 people attended his burial in minus 20-degree weather. Friends and family, wrapped in thick coats and heavy scarves, carried his body. They sang and wailed along the way. And, when they finally reached the plot, they placed him in the ground gently, taking turns with shovels–his grave filled in a few scoops of dirt at a time. Halfway through, everyone stopped and laid flat rocks, in the shape of a cross, above his body.

“The funeral industry takes that away from the family. They do all the work. A coffin they put in the ground is filled in by a bulldozer, and there isn’t a way to express grief. These funerals are whatever the people in the community want to make of it,” says Kenneth Chou.

As a photographer and an academic, Chou has spent a lot of time documenting these burials in Ithaca. He often refers to the county as a progressive place; ironic maybe in light of the bare bones nature of their funerals. He warns though that progressive doesn’t necessarily mean modern. After completing his thesis on death rituals, Chou says the incredible strangeness of our burial customs in North America have shaken him far more than anything else.

Years ago he witnessed a run of the mill embalming at a Scarborough funeral home, and what he saw deeply unnerved him. Chou vividly remembers the experience. The lifeless body, naked on a metal table, twitching and contorting; its head rolling off the block it initially rested on. The sterile worker, clad in a hospital gown and a surgical mask, prodding the flesh with tubes–thrusting a hollow spike in the stomach to suck out any remaining content, so bacteria couldn’t eat the corpse from the inside out. Then there was two more breaking the skin, the first to drain blood, and the second to replenish the veins with a cocktail of chemicals, including formaldehyde. The slow application of makeup to the dead woman’s morose yellow face–blush as thick as paint–made him ill. Up close, he says, it felt like he was staring at a doll.

“Most of them, they don’t look like people to be honest,” says Chou.

Worse than appearance however, was the stench.

“I didn’t realize how bad it smelt until I left the funeral home and was in the parking lot. I was smelling my clothes and it was everywhere. It was the smell of embalming fluid,” says Chou, “After seeing it myself, it’s not something I would want someone close to me going through.”

In an earlier era, bodies were washed, and cared for by relatives. Buried, often, on the same day they died, but that’s all changed. Embalming is massively normalized now, and seldom ever questioned. Where did it come from? Chou says it’s a trend that can be traced back to the U.S. Civil war era, right around the 1860s. Families of soldiers wanted to see their sons, brothers and fathers for the last time before laying them to rest. With men fighting days away from their native towns and cities, people began preserving bodies through chemical means, and sending them back via train. Then, around the same time, former President Lincoln died. His body was embalmed, and photographed for all to see–this, the people said, is what a proper burial looks like. Today in North America it’s just what we do.

“That was the way they wanted to remember someone. A lot has changed since,” says Chou.

This is also true in the sense of how ceremonies are run and viewed. Along with shifting burial practices, have come very different memorial practices.

For instance, when Minister Gail McCabe holds a service, more often than not, a body isn’t even present. Held in backyards, living rooms, and sometimes small churches, they take place days, months, even years after a death, and are considered celebrations of life. For McCabe, a humanist minister serving an irreligious group, there is no talk of an afterlife. No traditional liturgy to read through. All of it is free form. Families and friends congregate, much the same as they would at a traditional funeral, but instead of inspecting reworked flesh and features, together attendees dissect memories.

“When I talk about the relationship we had with the person, I talk about how it was a relationship of presence… I help people review their relationship and build a new model, which is of memory,” says McCabe.

With this comes a fair bit of groundwork. In order to avoid trivializing a life story–something she says many ministers have the tendency to do–McCabe is thorough and open to input. Her preparation includes extensive family interviews prior to the day, where she pours over the anecdotes that are often lost in a time of mourning. She comforts and consoles. She asks a lot of questions. What was his favorite food, music album, and style of dance? Then, McCabe goes deeper; asking about the deceased’s role in a family or in a community. Was she funny, devoted, pensive? Finally, she makes sure to find and share a piece of original writing, often penned long before death.

“I did one for an old curmudgeon, probably 90 years old… He had this notebook that he kept. [From it] I pulled out this list to read because I thought it was so worthy of him,” says McCabe. “It had all of his favorite things, and they were jazz, they were Duke Ellington rehearsals, they were borscht, they were all unique things that defined him in a way–what he thought was significant in life.”

During the actual ceremony, everyone has a chance to speak: brothers, sisters, friends, uncles and cousins twice removed, the list goes on. McCabe strongly encourages all to stand up and share stories–the more personal, hilarious and touching, the better. Her theory is, if each person offers up a little piece of his relationship with the deceased, even just a spark of a memory, a full mural of experience can be painted for the entire group.

“So you come to know so much more about that person than you ever did in life,” says McCabe.

It’s a tedious and time-consuming journey to make it to this point though; next to impossible right after the shock of a death. Those within the funeral industry often admit that people resemble the walking dead the first couple days after a loved one passes. Caught up in a fog of shock, denial and confusion, they’re easy to manipulate and ignore.

“I don’t believe in closure, that’s a very bad term. In my opinion that doesn’t speak to the reality of these things,” says McCabe.

If a person in mourning appears polished, put together and calm, psychologists warn, more often than not it’s because the depth of the situation hasn’t sunk in. Lois Scott, the aftercare counselor for Beckett and Glaves Funeral Home can relate to this feeling.

“I talked to her at nine thirty and she was dead by ten after ten,” she says, about her mother’s death, “So I can’t remember it, either that or I blocked it, but I barely remember. There’s bits and pieces, but people have to fill in the blanks.”

Her mother, at age 58, died of a massive heart attack. This tragedy is part of the reason Scott spearheaded programs targeted to helping mourners long after the initial burial. Working for corporate homes in the past, including one branch of a Texas conglomerate she won’t name, Scott says continual counselling was never a viable option–likening their business model to pay up and get out.

“Our philosophy here is we don’t leave you at the door after you pay, and say bye, have a nice day. It’s continuing care. I think that’s really important…”

This move, in the context of current death practices, is fundamentally strange. From a young age we’re taught that death is meant to give us the heebie jeebies. In North America, talking about it and being around it, is supposed to set off alarm bells; we shouldn’t want to come back to a place that deals with this reality. Yet, Beckett and Glaves go to great lengths to maintain that connection. They host a well-attended tree planting ceremony each fall, and afterwards, a reception with coffee and warm apple cider. In December, they have a vigil where family members come and light a candle for the person they’ve lost. And from day to day, Scott leads support groups for mourners within the funeral home. She remains good friends with many of the women who’ve attended her widow’s chapter over the years.

“Honestly, when they come they don’t think they’re ever going to get through it,” says Scott, “At the end of six weeks you wouldn’t believe the difference. They have hope by then.”

This is an overwhelming statement in light of the reality: experiencing the death of a loved one is considered the worst personal tragedy possible. After all, death is a brutal and cruel force, one that has terrorized and terrified man since the dawn of time. What happens when the lights go out? What do we do when someone around us disappears forever? Is it really possible to simply sink some money into a crisp burial suit, and a cherry wood coffin, take a week or so off from work, and be mostly over it?

“There’s this anesthetization of the idea that death is real, and death hurts, and we’re all going to die,” says Reverend Jonathan Massimi.

It’s something people in polite society don’t talk about. That’s why space burials and memorial diamonds often elicit the criticism of being inappropriate. That’s why natural burial, the notion of being laid in the ground to become one with it, makes us squirm. For Massimi, death and life are part of a bigger story: of family, community and faith. He urges us to look at the greater metanarrative of our lives, and place ourselves along the continuum–to remember and honour those who have passed, for the benefit of those who are still living, but to do it simply and honestly.

“If we don’t carry that, it’s almost a double death. You lost a person in life and in memory,” says Massimi.

And he’s right, death is a big deal, not an event that can be easily smoothed over or nullified. And, it isn’t something we can prevent. Bodies, after all, crumble and decay, at a haunting and alarming rate. Young, old, rich and poor, it finds us all–the great equalizer. As Chou so brutally learned–no matter how much perfume you apply to a corpse, it’s still a corpse. No matter how shiny and new the coffin, the thing is still going straight into the ground, to be covered in earth, manure and worms. This is the reality; the reality North Americans have fought tooth and nail. But now, some are asking the question; what do we really need to help us remember?

Merchants of Death
Photo courtesy of Kenneth Chou

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