the industry of death

earlier I made the limited claim that my (former) students were a pleasure whilst I was in graduate school. now I make the more expansive claim that my (current) students are a pleasure now that I’m faculty. in what i hope will become a new tradition, i’m presenting the work of my students in their own words. here’s george:

When I first began researching the contemporary American funeral industry I kept two file folders (one physical and one electronic) that I’d labeled “novelty” (short for “novelty products and services available in the funeral industry”). These were where I’d stash newspaper clippings or info on various companies that colleagues who were familiar with my work would send my way. Both file folders expanded to the point that if I wanted to understand the political economy of American deathways, the content of those folders could no longer be considered peripheral to my analyses.

Novelty became an important category in my research but it had its problems. For instance, how novel is a company that transforms cremated ashes into diamonds when many Victorians wore jewelry created out of the braided hair of a deceased person? And while blending cremated bodies with concrete to form an artificial reef was novel in 1998, is it still novel when another company does the same thing only bigger, or another company adds a touch of irony with a humorous company name? And is d.i.y. novel or merely pastiche?

In order to evoke associations with my interest in spectacles and marketing strategies in a culture of distraction, I renamed my folders and categories to “gimmicks.” Gimmicks are increasingly important in an industry beset by bad publicity, burdened with high debt, and struggling under the weight of declining profits from low death rates plummeting casket sales in the face of rising cremation rates.

With over a third of all Americans being cremated (and climbing), gimmicks have taken root in this new market. There are two advantages for entrepreneurs: a.) almost anything can serve as an urn including fishing rods and other sports equipment, and b.) cremated ashes can be blended with almost any material to create a new product including a headstone, flatware, fine crystal, and, of course more traditional objet d’art.

Casket makers are playing catch up by making their wares serve a dual purpose or by appealing to the artsy crowd (who are more inclined to be cremated). Design gimmicks are important and run the gamut from convention center style caskets to the Wallpaper reading set. In fact, the industry recently had its big merchandise biennale, judging by which, a throwback style is headed our way.

Gimmicks are also beginning to alter funerary rites. For example, where the ritual closure was once accomplished by tossing a handful of dirt on the casket, now one can release a high-altitude balloon containing the ashes, or pack the remains in with gunpowder to provide this kind of sendoff, or better yet, launch the remains into space.

Gimmicks aren’t going anywhere so I’m already making my own plans. My current pick is Honor Industries. They will process my cremated ashes into a charcoal pencil. Then someone will use that pencil to sketch my portrait (sans blemishes and nerdy glasses and adding more hair). (Or maybe I’ll go with oils-they seem a bit classier...)

George’s research on the funeral industry demonstrates the funeral industry has undergone a transition to produce customizable, mass produced funeral experiences and products for ever-more-finely-carved demographic profiles. One might have thought this impossible given:

1. the strong friction between the sacred ritual of death and pecuniary aims;

2. the short amount of time most consumers spend choosing funeral rites for their family members;

3. the high cost of even modest funerals;

4. the increasing re-sensitization to brands and branding and the accompanying desire for “authenticity,” “tradition,” etc.

Despite these impediments, folks are shooting grandma into space, turning grandpa into dy-no-mite, and interring Bobby in casket wrapped in a digital artist’s rendering of DaVinci’s Last Supper. I think the art-and-commerce questions here are really interesting, not only re: the nature of death ritual, but also in thinking about art in the contemporary moment. (What is art? Where do we find it? Who decides if it is beautiful/interesting/appropriate? Is there a fine art for the masses? Is art anti-ironic? Can art be free of irony?)

George also has interesting things to say to the folks in medical sociology and occupations, because he both knows the science of embalming (having received a grant that enabled him to take a course in the subject) and because he’s done dozens of interviews with funeral directors, asking them about their work and how it has changed. Many of the pressures here shadow those in other cultural industries including increasing market segmentation produced by competition between global corporations in constant expansion through the subsumption of smaller firms. Central officers are increasingly corporate MBA types, embalming is often centralized into processing centers, and customer service frequently provided by sales people who are given quick, fast training and credentials in funeral direction.

I don’t think the funeral industry is the canary in the mine so much as it is the furthest depth of the mine. Thinking about culture, work, medicine in this context is alarming or unfamiliar to most readers, which might just help the average Joette to reconsider her own material, from a new angle.

So, finally: Where will it all end? Hard to see a natural balance here. Perhaps urns from the New Jersey Devils?

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1 Comment

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One response to “the industry of death

  1. mom

    Grrrreat project. I think the litmus test for a great diss topic is when I think one of two things 1) I can’t wait to read the book and/or 2) I’m jealous of the topic.

    Check on both counts.

    I’m completely obsessed with the commercialization / commodification of everything and this is such a tragic/smusing/amazing terrain to explore.

    Go get em’ George.

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