Like Dust Swept Under the Rug
Controversies in the Funeral Industry by Paulina Odeth Flores Bañuelos
Despite the inevitability of death, modern responses to it continue to be a matter of religious, political, and personal debate. The ongoing pandemic and sanitary crisis have demonstrated more than any other event in recent history that our collective experiences with death and dying cannot be fully private nor fully public matters. In this paper, I hope to give a brief but comprehensive overview of how the funeral industry intersects with different issues that go beyond the interests of those more closely affected by any individual death. Therefore, I will map the ecological, sanitary, financial, and legislative controversies that surround the current state of the funeral industry and some of the funeral practices that have been heavily criticised by the proponents of the death positivity movement.
Whereas for most of human history, funerals were private matters organised by the families of the deceased, a turn came about with the dawn of the industrial era. Like many other fields, funeral rites became an industry uprooted from the close-knitted spaces they had once naturally belonged to. New advances in science and medicine gave rise to a specialised professional class—known as undertakers in the UK and as morticians in the US—that made the personal and informal care of the dead obsolete. Death positivity refers to the comparatively recent movement that aims "to guide mourners through the experience of death” by removing the fear and anxiety from death-related conversations (OrderoftheGoodDeath.com), thus going back to pre-industrial customs.
By normalising this, which is an inevitable part of the human experience, death activists seek also to raise awareness about the negative consequences of society’s increasing detachment from traditional funeral practices. Among these consequences, we can identify the environmental impact and health hazards posed by embalming chemicals and burial materials; the rising economic burden for grieving families; and the conflict of interests for legislators and funeral home board members, among others.
1.1. Genesis and the Economic and Legislative Stakes of the Funeral Industry
With the advent of democratised science in the dawn of the nineteenth century came the pseudo-scientific belief in the health hazards posed by the so-called “miasma” exuding from human remains. As a consequence, sanitary reformers in Victorian England “quite mistakenly believed that the stench from poorly interred decaying bodies was poisoning the metropolis. The practice of urban burial was touted as a profound menace to public health” (Jackson). Burial plots were then relocated from urban areas to remote locations outside the cities. Similarly, funeral care was slowly relegated from the domestic sphere to external funeral directors that would become fixed figures and zealous intermediaries in people’s experiences with death.
Since then, the funeral industry has grown exponentially. As recently as 2020, it was valued at $39.2 billion in the United States alone, and it is expected to grow up to $160 billion worldwide by the year 2027 (“Death Care Services…”). This growth has led to a transition from family- to corporate-owned funeral houses, absorbing thus the lasting remnants of localised and personalised care. According to an article published in World Funeral News,
Most of the daily burials and cremations are managed by the largest funeral home companies that dominate this industry. These giants have decided to grow through the absorption of small funeral companies, although most of them continue to operate through their own brands with the aim of maintaining a close and personalised attention. (“An in-depth analysis…”)
Thus, these big corporations maintain the original names and the staffs of the smaller establishments, aiming at retaining the public’s trust in family-owned funeral homes, while introducing their own prices and policies. Strategies such as adding markups, upselling or withholding human remains under bureaucratic pretences are some of the ways the industry weaponizes grieving families for profit. Numerous cases where “sales trump sympathy” have been investigated in recent years, documenting the shady strategies of funeral corporations to sell unnecessary services and products (“Funeral home markups and upselling”). Though some regulations are put in place, these don’t cover the “hard-sell” practices families are oftentimes bombarded with at their most vulnerable (“Funeral home markups and upselling”).
Despite the delicate nature of the service provided, the funeral industry capitalises on the public’s concerns about the physiological processes of decomposition to sell, as if it were the norm, embalming and cosmetic services, as well as reinforced anti-leakage caskets and coffins. All these add-ons contribute not only to the economic and mental burden of grieving families, but also to the creation of monopolies supported, or oftentimes overlooked, by public legislation. According to a study by Fletcher and McGowan in the UK, the “professional, legislative, and historical specificities” of the funeral industry pose commercial and social concerns within critical discussions of State practice and welfare provision. This is a direct result of the lack of fair regulations for both larger corporations and traditional independent funeral homes in relation to social policy and austerity measures. In turn, this has created the risk of running into, “at best, proxy solutions to inadequate welfare provision and, at worst, normalised exploitative monopolies” (Fletcher and McGowan).
This is far from being a recent trend worldwide. Already in 1978, a Federal Trade Commission report in the US determined that the funeral industry has attempted to minimize competitive threats from price advertising, pre-need offerings, direct cremation companies and most recently from sellers of casket/vault units both by the
filing of lawsuits and by invoking the aid of the state regulatory mechanism. Since the state boards are almost exclusively composed of funeral directors who likewise stand to lose from the shift of consumer patronage to competitors, boards have on many occasions been sympathetic to and cooperative with such anticompetitive endeavors. (440)
As a recent Senate bill in the state of Ohio, US has demonstrated (Hancock), conflict of interests for state boards, funeral homes, and cemeteries continue to be a matter of political debate. Ohio’s example demonstrates how laws put the (mostly) non-profit cemeteries at a disadvantage against privately-owned and profitable funeral homes. As Hancock points out, “[t]he Ohio Funeral Directors Association is influential. Its political action committee has donated $30,650 to state political candidates in the past five years” (“Ohio bill…”). On the other end of the spectrum, the Ohio Cemetery Association “doesn’t have a [Political Action Committee] since most of the members are non-profits, such as churches” (“Ohio bill…”).
The disadvantages created by unchecked sale practices and monopolies is an issue the public is often not aware of. The bereft are oftentimes taken advantage of as they might choose not to contest or “haggle” on a loved one’s last goodbye. Death activists have pointed out how the culture of silence and anxiety around death exploits grieving families for profit, leaving them unaware of their rights as consumers.
1.2. The Funeral Industry v. Environmental and Human Welfare
Besides the personal and financial impact caused by the detachment from the dead and traditional burial practices, the environmental impact of modern burial and cremation is of ultimate consequence in the current climate. The advent of the first embalming methods during the American Civil War1started a trend against the natural processes that would normally maintain the ecological balance derived from decaying bodies, as it happens with all animal species in the wild. Whereas, as opposed to public belief, dead bodies pose no immediate danger to water supplies nor the flora and fauna in the vicinity, embalming fluids such as formaldehyde and the CO2 from cremation chambers contribute to a significant waste of critical resources and the outpour of harmful gases into the environment.
As an article in Business Insider explains,
"[F]ormaldehyde is a potential human carcinogen, and can be lethal if a person is exposed to high concentrations. Its fumes can also irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. Phenol, similarly, can irritate or burn the flesh, and is toxic if ingested. Methyl alcohol and glycerin can irritate the eyes, skin, nose, and throat. According to an article published in the Berkeley Planning Journal, more than 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde are put into the ground along with dead bodies every year in the US." (Calderone)
Cremation, the only accessible disposal method second to burial, is more affordable and seemingly less harmful. These two factors have led to its rising popularity (Little) despite the comparatively late birth of modern cremation in late nineteenth-century Europe. However, this process stills involves enormous quantities of fuel and “results in millions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year” (Little). On the one hand, the cremation process deprives the remaining ashes of all nutrients that a naturally composted body would provide to the environment. On the other hand, the high pH and sodium levels found in cremated ashes are detrimental to soil, ultimately inhibiting plant life (“Why Burying Ashes…”). Thus, the current funeral industry is dominated by non-sustainable practices that damage the environment in the attempt of making death less gruesome. The industry and policymakers have also vetted out innovative methods such as aquamation, 2 citing the perceived lack of dignity it confers to the body in comparison to modern cremation and burial practices.3
Whereas the embalming process and heavily reinforced caskets made with rubber and iron are a modern development, they are now perceived as the norm and form for conducting a civilised, sanitary, and decorous final goodbye.4 According to Caitlin Doughty, a renowned death activist based in California, we have been conditioned by our culture and the funeral industry to “pay to avoid the reality of death” (“Eco-Death Takeover…”), with a strong emphasis on the decaying process and our natural place in the environmental cycle. The funeral industry developed as it did out of a concern for more sanitary practices to spare the living and the dead from the realities of organic decomposition. This has ultimately led to committing practices damaging to both humans in a private and political sense and the environment, as well as subjecting the body to artificial preservation processes that are characterised for being intrusive and violent to a degree.
Modern responses to death and dying, both on a micro- and macro-level, have become disenfranchised from a more organic view of life and its natural conclusion, as well as from the process of grief. The death positivity movement seeks to inform the public about their funeral rights and about more conscientious and sustainable practices that ultimately serve the environment instead of damaging it on a large and unprecedented scale. This might also help to come to terms with the conclusion of life and eliminate the damaging rhetoric surrounding the new sustainable disposal practices modelled after pre-industrial customs.
Although body preservation practices have existed since late antiquity, the modern method derives from the nineteenth century. The need to send fallen Union soldiers to their families across the South incentivised the army to commission Dr Thomas Holmes to create a new method of preservation by injecting arsenic. After the Civil War, this method continued to spread in popularity and availability—also due in part to Abraham Lincoln’s posthumous train journey from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois made possible by embalmer Dr Charles Brown (Chiappelli 24).
Aquamation, also known as alkaline hydrolysis or biocremation, is a process that uses water, potassium hydroxide, and 160-degree (ªC) heat to dispose of the body in a more gentle and sustainable way to traditional flame cremation.
Moreover, funeral houses are purposefully not clear about the level of violence that is involved in embalming or about how some of their practices would be considered desecrations to the body. For instance, according to the public information officer at Austin Water, in Texas, embalmers in the area were in violation of a Texas Commission on Environmental Quality because they did not have any permits for the discharge of medical waste. Though disposing of bodily fluids and toxic embalming chemicals down the drain might not be an environmental concern in and on itself, city officials and the public are often not aware that this is a common practice in funeral houses (Noor) and might object to “drinking grandma,” as Chiappelli pokes fun at in his article.
As opposed to the traditional funeral practices that have survived among indigenous people, which would be regarded as uncivilised, unsanitary, and even deviant in nature according to Western standards. For instance, the ñatita skulls tradition in Bolivia; the preservation of mummified bodies inside the home for months and sometimes yearsin Indonesian Toraja community, as well as their cliffside tombs, and ma'nene (second burial), among others. For more about these and other rituals, read Caitlin Doughty’s From Here to Eternity.
“An in-depth analysis of the largest funeral home companies in the world.” World Funeral News, January 2021. https://news.wfuneralnet.com/en/largest-funeral-home companies/
“Death Care Services - Global Market Trajectory & Analytics.” Research and Markets. January 2021. https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/5141466/death-care services-global-market-trajectory
“Eco-Death Takeover: Changing the Funeral Industry.” YouTube, uploaded by Ask a Mortician, December 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWo2- LHwGMM&t=623s
“Funeral home markups and upselling: Hidden camera investigation (CBC Marketplace).” YouTube, uploaded by CBC News, March 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRNaqntsLPI
The Order of the Good Death, https://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/
“Why Burying Ashes is Harmful to the Environment.” Let Your Love Grow, https://letyourlovegrow.com/blogs/blog/why-burying-ashes-is-harmful-to-the environment
Chiappelli, Jeremiah, and Ted Chiappelli. “Drinking Grandma: The Problem of Embalming.” Journal of Environmental Health, vol. 71, no. 5, National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), 2008, pp. 24–29.
Hancock, Laura. “Ohio bill has cemeteries accusing funeral homes of attempting to create a monopoly on casket sales.” Cleveland, December 2021. https://www.cleveland.com/news/2021/12/ohio-bill-has-cemeteries-accusing-funeral homes-of-attempting-to-create-a-monopoly-on-casket-sales.html
Hoffner, Ann. “Can plastics ever be suitable for green burial?” Green Burial Naturally, December 2017. https://www.greenburialnaturally.org/blog/2017/12/9/plastics
Jackson, Lee. “Death in the city: the grisly secrets of dealing with Victorian London's dead.” The Guardian 2015.
Little, Becky. “The environmental toll of cremating the dead.” National Geographic. November 2019.
Mortazavi, Seyede Salehe, et al. “Mourning During Corona: A Phenomenological Study of Grief Experience Among Close Relatives During COVID-19 Pandemics.” OMEGA - Journal of Death and Dying, July 2021.
Noor, Dharna. “Austin Funeral Homes Regularly Pour Blood and Embalming Fluid Down the Drain.” Gizmondo September 2021. https://gizmodo.com/austin-funeral-homes regularly-pour-blood-and-embalming-1847671220
About the Author
Mexican scholar Paulina Odeth Flores Bañuelos earned her undergraduate degree in English Literature at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 2019. She has recently completed the Erasmus Mundus Crossways in Cultural Narratives joint master's programme. Her pathway consisted of the University of Tübingen (Germany), Adam Mickiewicz University (Poland), and the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). Her main lines of research are Gothic literature, cultural and memory studies, and the history of death and dying.
Paulina volunteers as Content Writer for Rethinking Refugees (@rethinking_refugees) and is passionate about bringing attention to the attitudes and policies affecting displaced and endangered people worldwide. She strongly believes in the influence of informed individuals in changing public opinion about the so-called refugee crisis and, ultimately, in making governments adhere to their humanitarian values.