"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Revolting Funeral Industry

I recently read this article and then came across a short promotional video done by a "funeral professional" on helping you to choose the right casket. Both were ghastly, of course, but the video deserves some kind of prize for being such a perfectly gruesome example of everything in the American funeral industry that everyone--from Jessica Mitford to Evelyn Waugh--has rightly and mercilessly criticized and satirized over the years.

In the video a prim woman in soft lighting talks in carefully modulated tones, with schlocky music in the background, about different caskets you can buy, carefully highlighting only two types: expensive hardwood and more expensive metal ones. (No Jewish pine boxes for her!) Her voice was flat as she discussed the wooden options, but when she came to steel, and still more to copper and bronze ("semi-precious metals"), her voice rose and pace quickened, as though salivating at the prospects of higher profits on these meretricious models. Then she started in on the "personalization features" including "Lifesymbols," a trademarked term that would seem to include a variety of tacky baubles to glue to the outside of your box to reflect your (dread word) "lifestyle." (Will the worms give pause, before doing their work, to contemplate with suitable admiration your emblazoned fetish for motorcycles, baseball, Elvis, or whatever?) Only think what deliciously satirical fun Waugh, who saw relatively tame examples in 1950s California of American funeral practices, could have had with such rich offerings from today's industry! But it is entirely of a piece with so much of what passes for "normality" in North American funeral practices today as anyone who has had recent experience with them will readily attest.

How refreshing, then, to read J. Mark and Elizabeth J. Barna, A Christian Ending: a Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition (Divine Ascent Press, 2011), xiii+169pp.

Unlike me, these authors (both Orthodox Christians: Mark is a deacon in the Orthodox Church of America) have enough virtue to keep any polemical and satirical impulses firmly in check, and note in their introduction that they are not writing an "indictment or condemnation" of the funeral industry, nor a theological manual about death but, as their subtitle suggests, a practical handbook on how to face death in its most unvarnished form: by caring for a person at the time of death, and by washing, dressing, transporting, praying over, and ultimately carrying to the church and then cemetery the bodies of those who have died. And they have done just that with an admirable detail that provides enough information without being too gruesome or gratuitous, retaining a certain level of sober restraint and dignity. This book should be required reading for all Christians who still remember that caring for the dead is one of the so-called corporeal works of mercy. 

Even more impressive, the authors have included aspects of Orthodox theology around death, and generous excerpts from Orthodox liturgical texts, but have written their book in such a way that it is never off-putting to non-Orthodox Christians. It is ecumenical in the best sense, and should appeal to a wide range of Christians who wish to regain control over dying, death, and burial by turning back the tide of cloyingly treacly euphemisms, monstrously over-priced caskets, and the whole revolting racket that is the modern funeral industry. Indeed, there is much here that even non-Christians, interested in a more "green" option for death and burial, will find beneficial. There is no shying away here from the fact that death is part of life, and works best when we do not contaminate corpses--and then land and water-tables--with dozens of carcinogenic chemicals for cosmetic purposes. The body is ordained to return to the earth whence it came, and there is no need to delay or deny this process or to be squeamish about it. Much of this reminds me of the treatment of death in rural Greece, as documented in Juliet du Boulay's lovely book Cosmos, Life, and Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Village on which I have commented previously.

While being respectful of the fact that some people may still wish to involve a funeral home in some or all of their arrangements, the Barnas demystify the process in such a way that the reader has a good sense of how to simply bypass funeral homes entirely. With some leg-work, you can ensure that you never turn the body over to strangers but tend for it yourself from death to burial if you have the skills and community support, ideally from your parish which, if organized in advance, can help in any number of ways, including especially keeping vigil and praying the Psalter over the body around the clock. Many will tendentiously try to tell you--often using threatening pseudo-legal language--that you "must" be embalmed, or "must" be buried in a vault, or "must" have a coffin, but in most cases across the country there are no such requirements and those telling you otherwise will usually back down if they realize you know what they are talking about and will not be intimidated or bullied into spending $7000-10,000 or more, as many do on the "average" funeral. 

The authors reflect, in a very accessible and conversational style, on their own experience caring for the dead over the years, and from that experience are able to offer many helpful practical guidelines. They also include a useful reference list to books and websites useful in obtaining such things as burial shrouds, incense, oils for anointing, liturgical texts, and information for burial of war veterans in the United States. In addition, an appendix includes sample forms you can fill out detailing how you want your body handled, and how you want your funeral to proceed. Anyone who wants to take control of one's own arrangements will find much that is useful in  A Christian Ending: a Handbook for Burial in the Ancient Christian Tradition, and I  commend it to all those so interested. 

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