Appalled by these sentiments and others, Mitford wrote a magazine article to out these practices, only to find that every major trade magazine rejected it. It finally found a home in a small publication and, when a progressive funeral society ordered 10,000 reprints, her ideas sailed fast and furiously into the fighting fever of the 1960s. A movement was born, and Mitford became its poster child. The book that emerged quickly changed funeral practices. Clients were suddenly more suspicious of what they were being sold and why. Clergy felt relief that someone was finally exposing dishonest business practices that now had ritual and myth attached to them. The notion that people needed a "memory picture"a view of the deceased made-up and embalmedbecause it was important for closure was finally being questioned. So was the "grief therapy" that was (and still is) regularly offered as a service in many funeral homes. The undertaker was moving into a therapist role but with few of the requisite qualifications. Sanitizing or denying the reality of death in the way that the dead are buried often prolongs and attenuates emotional turmoil. It's hard for an undertaker to be a grief therapist because by dolling up the dead, he or she may actually be getting in the way of confronting the reality of death.
People who are grieving and simply cannot think clearly are perfect targets for unethical practices. They rush into decisions. They are heavily influenced by what they see in front of them and don't want money to get in the way of their grief. Where people spending several thousand dollars might normally shop around, funeral homes tend to be a first-stop-only store for burial. You take what's on offer because you don't know any better and are limited to what is placed before you. And bargain shoppers take note: there are no sales.
Mitford describes in detail the casket walk that is presented by funeral directors in their showrooms. Caskets in different price ranges are strategically placed, and the tour of the casket room often moves in a triangle formation so that by the time the shopper is done, he or she has moved out of one price range and into another. You shouldn't bury old Uncle Fred in the cheapest casket, and after the guilt walk you won't. Most people go for the midrange casket because they don't want to seem ostentatious in their choices, but neither do they want to be the family cheapskates. That's exactly what the walk is designed to do: price you above your original intentions. This reminds me of a cartoon where a man in a suit escorts a couple into a casket room and says, "What will it take to put one of you into a brand new Eterna 5000 today?" If buying a casket feels like buying a car, it is because it is like buying a car. And close to the same price of a used one. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much of a market for used caskets.
Early the next afternoon, I arrived at Diane and Roy's house in Florida. My grandmother, aunt, uncle, cousin and his wife were all sitting on the brown leather couches in the family room in a stupor. A rabbi was arguing with them about how to bury Alyssa. My aunt suspected that Alyssa would have been scared to be buried in the ground, having once said as much. Because of the water tables in Florida, many people are buried aboveground in vaults, but a traditional Jewish funeral requires burial in the earth. In the words of the book of Job, we go back to the earth that we come from. In Hebrew, the name Adam, the first primordial being, comes from the word adama, "earth." Nothing can be more natural. We let the body go back to where it belongs, in Mother Earth. The rabbi would not perform the ceremony if the family picked a vault burial, but he lacked the sensitivity to help them understand the spiritual message behind these choices. I asked him politely to leave, and I drove my aunt and uncle to the Eternal Light Memorial Gardens cemetery. To make the decision, they needed to see the options and make them real.
Excerpted from Happier Endings by Erica Brown. Copyright © 2013 by Erica Brown. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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