Community Perspective: How To Say Goodbye

A contributed perspectives piece by C.A. Mills

As the needle shape of the economy keeps getting more extreme, traditional graveyard burials have gotten out of reach for most people. From the baseline 8k funeral, and the 600-2k plot cost (not to mention any medical bills), $800 and up gravestone, chucking all that and checking the cremation box has become the way to go.

Still not cheap, but cheaper than the hole in the ground and tree planted over in “organic” graveyards (and burying someone anywhere else is likely to get you in state and federal body handling trouble) and preferable to the modern day “potters’ fields” (where bodies go to anonymously become cremated and put into a mass grave) cremation is on the rise.

Whether using a wry metal coffee tin then shaking out in a favorite spot or going for the metal lidded pot engraved with tattoo like designs on a tiny shelf shrine in your house (with or without joss sticks), or a box in the closet; cremation is making new burial aesthetics. 

The performative grief of a funeral like the performative joy of a wedding, is subject to the cost/benefit ratio of contemporary capitalism. Religious restrictions aside, the insane costs of dying in the U.S. are driving new ways of honoring loved ones. By the year 2020, the rate of cremation is expected to be 56.2% versus 37.8% for burial (US Dept. of Commerce). No amount of slick brochures or persuasive, guilt inducing sales staff can make the exorbitant cost of a traditional funeral seem justifiable. 

The pot-luck wake may always exist as a way for friends and family to gather and connect. Other than the clean-up, the wake does not make undue demands on the centrally bereaved. That’s if you are lucky enough to have friends and family nearby. For those in the generations of moved-for-employment, or two jobs, or one that demands two-job hours, and house mates to make the rent– the wake might just be shots of honey whisky with a toast and separate checks at a local diner. 

According to World Funeral News (yes, a real website: there are only really ten major “death care/ funeral home” corporations in the entire world and the huge profits from our superstition filled grief are not something these few companies are going to give up any time soon. They form a lobbying front that pays to create public policy and laws to keep their singular services as our only options.

These laws regulate everything from how graveyards must operate (and to be fair, some of those regulations are with good reason; decaying bodies can wreak havoc on water systems, etc.) to who can handle a body. There are four general industries that operate in the death care system: Funeral homes and crematoriums, Cemeteries and stone working, Casket/equipment/chemicals/supplies manufacturers, ancillary services (florists, churches, insurance, and other supplemental businesses who rely on funerals).

As the traditional money-pit weddings are going extinct so too are funerals (but for the very rich, to whom both are expected displays of wealth and transactions of business). People are finding new ways to express themselves and honor the dead.

Creativity and necessity are the mothers of invention, and the predictable numbers of the grieving are finding interesting ways to fulfil their responsibility. The artwork on urns reveals an entirely new arena of expression, and self-organized “funeral tours” in which small groups of mourners go somewhere together to scatter ashes are becoming popular. As we all adapt to declining economic circumstances (truly not driven by any particular political party, but by a complex variety of influences), we find new ways to live- and to die.

Funerals address the doneness of life; the costs and rituals of dying are an entirely different essay riddled with profit driven lobbyists, healthcare costs, and deathcare restrictions. But when it is all over, the goodbyes still need to be done. Thank goodness there are people bucking the system, exploring how to go about it in new ways, and friends to still bring casseroles if needed.

C.A. Mills lives in Harrisonburg.

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