Alternatives to the Funeral Industrial Complex

A casket made by the monks of Saint Joseph Abbey in Louisiana.

If there’s one business I’d like to see shut down and rethought it would be the funeral industry. I’m not going to mince words. The funeral directors I’ve had to deal with just wanted to turn grief into dollars. When my dad passed on his pastor warned me about what would happen at the funeral home, telling me that they would try to up-sell my mom and I. He said, “don’t let them try to equate money with love.” He was right. Even though everything was supposedly per-arranged the funeral director still tried to get us to buy more expensive items.

If treating individuals like this isn’t bad enough, the funeral industry works like a cartel to curtail the rights of any alternatives to their products and services. In Louisiana the┬áState Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors, staffed almost entirely by funeral directors, tried to shut down a group of monks who were making and selling simple wooden caskets. And let’s not even get into the horrific tales of abuse, theft of dental fillings, reusing graves, etc.

The good news is that there seems to be a growing alternative funeral movement. The monks won their court case. And I have a feeling that as the baby boomer generation begins to grasp its own mortality, we’ll begin to see more changes. Either that or the funeral industry will start marketing fake green burials (they probably have already).

What prompted this rant was a comment from a Root Simple reader asking if I knew of any green burials in Southern California. I don’t. If any of you know of any alternative funeral services in Southern California, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in hearing about the experiences of readers outside of our region. Have you participated in a DIY funeral? Do you know of any resources for opting out of the funeral industry?

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44 Comments

  1. These guys up in northern Minnesota have a traditional skills school where they teach all kinds of stuff I’d love to learn.

    Well, they offer a “make your own casket” course that I’ve always thought looked reallly cool.
    I was amazed last winter when my father in law died in Turkey. The whole endeavor was so simple and community focused. They are Christian minorities, so they really have to “take care of their own,” since they have totally different traditions than the majority population, but it’s amazing. The men of the church show up seemingly spontaneously at the hospital (this was the middle of the night on a weeknight.)They’re there with the sons and the widow to give support, and then the hospital releases the body to a responsible person from the church who has access to the communial coffin and the station wagon that holds it. They load up the body and take it to the church’s refrigerated basement room, that’s there for that purpose. It’s a very powerful experience to watch all of these men, just regular guys, in the middle of the night carrying a coffin across the church yard. My brother in laws weeping, and these *normally* testosterone-filled manly men being the epitome of supportiveness. The next day the church moves into action taking care of arrangements for the funeral, which happens within 48 hours. It’s a simple service, there’s no embalming or anything. Anyone who wants to look at the body has a chance to at the end of the service. Then the family drives to the cemetary, where the body is removed from the casket and put into a hole in the ground.

    For the next few days, there are visitation periods at the church where the community comes to comfort the family, there is an established protocol about visiting the grieving family and providing meals.

    All told, the bill to my inlaw’s family was less than $1000. Most of which went to the catering company that handled coffee and tea at the visitation services and then tips to priests, etc.

    The thought that Americans have developed an industry that sucks $20,000 or more out of a family when they lose a loved one is crazy.

    • Jake–thanks for sharing this. I like that the arrangements are handled by church volunteers, making it a calling not a profession. And there’s a connection between those handling the funeral and the family. The power of community in action.

  2. I’ve already left my instructions: Keep it all as simple as I have lived: immediate burial, no embalming with chemicals, no service whatsoever (not at funeral parlor or at gravesite), pine casket preferably home-made, leave me dressed as I was when I passed on, and a simple gravestone with basic information.

    Wish more people thought this phase of life through and didn’t leave the burden on those who are living. Here is a link to places in the US, but it may not be all-inclusive: http://naturalburial.coop/USA/

  3. Body donation is my solution. The UCLA and USC Schools of Medicine both have free body donation programs. They even pick up the body and once aspiring medical students are done with the body, dispose of it for free. I’m sure medical colleges in other states have similar programs. Zero cost to families.

    • this is my choice also – both my folk’s did the same. there are also groups that take the bodies for organ donation and then dispose of the rest for free – or return the cremains to the families if requested. This aspect of the business is changing, my last registration has been cancelled as its become too expensive for them to go out of major cities. but there are still options and possibilities.

  4. Check out Funeral.org. They have a lot of options there for money saving ideas and green funerals. They also have articles on DIY arrangements.

  5. Great topic – of all the subjects that get me in an uproar, this might be the one that sets me off the most. I have read several books on the subject, and every time I think I’m not going to be able to finish the book because I get so worked up! I am just appalled by an industry that, by and large, takes advantage of people at some of their darkest moments. The thing about equating money with love is so spot-on, and so disgusting. I have little hope that sweeping change to the industry is coming any time soon, but I do have hope that there seems to be a growing contingency of folks with an alternate take on the matter.

  6. My grandfather’s best friend was a rancher who left instructions that he wanted to be buried in a pine box. In Wyoming that is perfectly legal, as long as it’s done in 24 hours (after that the body has to be embalmed). My grandfather stayed up all night building a casket, and the service was the next day. No embalming, no buying a casket, just a church service, a potluck lunch made by the church members, and burial.

    The interesting thing is that my uncle is a mortician. And everyone in my family has opted for “no embalming” after learning what it entails.

  7. I researched this recently. I’m on the hunt for a natural burial site that is public transit/ train accessible.

    You can look around for where they are on here http://naturalburial.coop/USA/

    still havent found one easy to visit car-free from here in SoCal. There’s one out near Joshua Tree though I think and one north of SF

  8. I work for a mortuary and cemetery in Southern California. There was a group considering a green burial cemetery near San Francisco, but they didn’t sound like they were interested in green burials as much as the green they would be paid for them.

  9. Over here in the UK there are lots of alternatives if you plan ahead. A firm making wicker coffins in Herefordshire now ship worldwide and we have loads of woodland burial places or meadows or whatever you wish to do. I usually recommend people read The Natural Death Handbook by Stephanie Wienrich or The Good Death Guide by Michael Dunn. There are also websites for Green Funerals as well as ordinary ones. It’s always more difficult if you have no knowledge of the deceased’s wishes and the surviving relatives are bowed down by their own grief.

  10. if you have at least an acre in Oregon, you can have a home burial. And, I understand that you can buried in something as simple as a canvas bag. We don’t have property yet, but I’ve already told my husband I want to be dropped in a hole and have a nice fruit or nut tree planted over me. I’d like to be useful after death.

  11. I’d expect a genuine green funeral to be cheaper than a fake one.

    No embalming fluid is cheaper than any embalming fluid, and no embalming labor is cheaper than any embalming labor.

    A shroud is cheaper than a casket, and a sapling is cheaper than a headstone. Even if the latter two weren’t the case, such a substitution would be difficult to fake.

  12. well, muslims simply wash their dead and wrap them in clean, white, unstitched cloth (not at a funeral home). cardboard conveys the deceased from the funeral home to the washing room, then to the cemetery. they are laid in the grave without a casket and then covered. it is a very simple and dignified way to say goodbye to our loved ones. i have been to “normal” funerals where the people didn’t look normal at all. at a muslim funeral, the deceased looks very natural. i hope that helps.

  13. I have researched all natural cemeteries in Maine, where I’m from, and found a place were you can buy the land and it’s set aside for burials “protected”. You can be buried in a shroud or pine box or without any wrapping. There are no mandatory chemicals and headstones can be carved but may only be stones from the property. Bodies have to be transported to the cemetery by a liscenced funeral home, refrigerated. You can select your natural piece of land in the forest or field and you get a GPS coordinate because there aren’t roads to every grave, or plot numbers.

    • Hi Carrie–A friend of mine is in Crestone for a few months–I sent the article along to him. Do you live in the area?

      Of course this reminds me of Gram Parson’s botched funeral pyre–a sad but funny story told in the documentary Fallen Angel. It’s good that the people of Crestone know how to do it correctly!

  14. I’d like to be put in an “Eternal Reef” http://www.eternalreefs.com/reefs/reefs.html

    Your ashes are mixed with concrete and cast into a Reef Ball. These are placed in the ocean, and provide much-needed habitat for young fish, turtles, etc. So much of our coral reefs have been destroyed by either storms or human activities such as fishing, trawling, etc.

  15. I bought a walnut casket from Trappist monks in IA for my mothers funeral in October. The thought of having men of God handcraft it was comforting to her. Outstanding service and beautiful craftsmanship. We received a letter from one of the Fathers there saying they were sorry for our loss, prayed for us and hoped we liked the casket.

  16. I bought a book by some American eastern orthodox called a Christian Ending (http://www.achristianending.com/) and in an interview I’ve heard from the authors, you can just keep your relative on ice. Yes, keep them in the freezer/cold room at the funeral home to preserve the body until the funeral because sometimes you need time for all the relatives to get from the other side of the country, arrange things, etc.

  17. For anyone in SoCal, some really great events coming soon within the “death positive” movement.

    1) Caitlin Doughty, one of the founders of “The Order of the Good Death” and writer of the web series “Ask a Mortician” is going to be opening and alternative funeral home in Los Angeles.

    2) There is going to be a conference called “Death Salon” in L.A. this October 18-20, hosted by Caitlin and other members of the Order. Some parts of the conference will be their private meetings, but other parts/presentations will be open to the public.

    Lots more details on all of this here:
    http://www.psmag.com/culture/the-death-positive-movement-57768/

    (I’m not affiliated with any of this – but saw an article about Caitlin in HuffPo today with the above link and thought to share!)

    • Oh – and the same article also mentions a new alternative funeral home opening later this year in Austin, Tx called “Continuum” by a gal named Sarah Wambold, if anyone is more in that neck of the woods.

    • Small oops …
      The Los Angeles “Death Salon” already happened in Oct of 2013, the 2014 Salon will be in London!

      Per the Order’s website:

      “The next Death Salons will be held in London in 2014, followed by New York in 2015. One-day Death Salon Forums are planned for San Francisco and Seattle.

      If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, please visit the Death Salon website.”

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