10, No. 1, December 2008
Novelty in the Funeral Industry
by George Sanders (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When the U.S. was primarily a producer economy the protestant
work ethic that Max Weber described served us well. Hard work,
re-investment, saving money, pinching pennies and so on all provided
normative behavioral guidelines. But now we live in a consumer
society, and with the “ongoing commodification of everything” as
Wallerstein (1983, 1998) puts it, the citizenry has been
encouraged to spend, spend, spend—an ideology epitomized
in the advice given to us by our president shortly after Sept.
11th 2001 when we were told to not to allow terrorists attacks
to impede our shopping activities. Even in an era of limited
credit and liquidity, this ideology has become so entrenched
that it is unlikely to be completely undermined in the near term.
As a consequence of consumerism’s entrenchment in contemporary society,
I would argue that Weber’s “elective affinity” between asceticism
and the expansion of capital has given way to a new relationship. The new affine
making possible capitalism’s growth is novelty. That is, in order
to consume more and more we require an unceasing supply of fresh stimuli (Bauman
2007). One area in which this is readily apparent is in the kinds of experiential
consumption (Caru and Cova 2007) now available in our “cathedrals of consumption” (Ritzer
 2005). We eat in themed restaurants; buy our wares at wondrous big box
retailers that woo us with their expansive aisles of merchandise stacked twenty
feet high; attend increasingly extravagant amusement parks; and we glory at the
marvel of online shopping which allows us to connect to other shoppers, rate
our experiences, and await the arrival of our sundries straight to our doorstep.
But it’s not merely applicable to the arena of retail therapy.
In this essay I examine some of the means through which the American funeral
industry has contributed to experiential consumption via themed goods. Steeped
as it is in conservatism and over a century’s worth of staid traditionalism,
the notion that the funeral industry can contribute to experiential consumption
utilizing themed products and services might surprise some. However, in the past
two decades it has shifted from an emphasis on material goods to more “cultural,” or
symbolic and expressive goods (Peterson and Anand 2004). While the funeral industry
can be characterized as selling both a product (casket, headstone, etc.) and
an experience (i.e., the funeral service), historically it has been the product
side (especially caskets) that has provided firms with their primary revenues
(Smith 1997). However, firms are increasingly looking at other means of revenue
extraction since caskets and cemetery plots are declining in demand. Rising cremation
rates (a little over a third and rising, in the U.S.) and a declining overall
death rate have impacted the kinds of goods and services funeral firms are increasingly
making available to the consuming public.
In light of experiential consumption, funeral workers are more likely to provide
the consumer with opportunities to plan and “personalize” the final
product—one that provides a vivid experience for funeral attendees.
This is especially true for themed goods and environments. Theming, or the use
of “overarching symbolic motifs within consumer milieus” (Gottdiener
2001:7), is widely popular in other areas of consumer life (e.g., restaurants
like Hard Rock Café or Planet Hollywood, Disney cruises, Las Vegas hotels,
Niketown, etc.), and is easily incorporated into the contemporary funeral.
The New York Times describes the popularity
of themed funerals in an article titled “It’s my Funeral and I’ll Serve Ice Cream
if I Want To” (Leland 2006). Another story in USA Today (Pancrazio
2007), described how a “funeral director simulated a campsite because the
deceased loved to camp. The director pitched a tent and brought in a faux fire.” From Exit
Strategy, a book that describes a number of alternative
funerary options, the reader is told “In Hickory, North Carolina, at Catawba Memorial Park,
Chuck Gallagher has built a putting green that houses cremains” (Cromer
2006: 117). The book also describes how one customer employed a company to shoot
her deceased loved one’s ashes in a fireworks display featuring the colors
of the deceased’s alma mater. Eternal Reefs has
garnered a lot of press coverage for its product—a roughly 3 foot wide artificial reef
made using the ashes of the deceased. The bereaved are encouraged to create a
ceremony that involves the dispensation of the “reef” onto the ocean
floor and subsequently re-visit it periodically via snorkeling gear. And even
the largest casket maker has turned to themed services: “Batesville now
helps undertakers offer theme services, such as “Cool Jazz” funerals… or
the “Outdoorsman” package (which includes a coffin outfitted like
a hunting lodge, complete with gun rack, bear skin rug, and elk antlers)” (Weiss
The journalist Lisa Cullen (2006) points out that, in the deathcare
industry, not only services but physical spaces are also themed.
She describes a visit to Rose Hill Cemetery: “Here… was the fake-rock waterfall for the
Mexicans; over here was Korealand; here was the $1 million family estates for
the super rich...” (p. 52). In fact, many cemeteries in the U.S. have
re-branded themselves as historical, tourist destinations and hold themed parties
and other events. Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia hosts a “Gravediggers’ Ball” ($150
per head), and another event, “Dining with the Dead” ($50 per head),
is catered but BYOB. Every April the same cemetery also hosts the “Titanic
Event” where lectures are given about the connection between Philadelphians
and the Titanic: “The evening is always capped off by
a sumptuous feast that replicates the one served aboard Titanic on
that final, fateful day” (retrieved 3/15/08 from URL http://www.thelaurelhillcemetery.org/index.php?m=4&id=7
). At Green-Wood, in Brooklyn, you can “Celebrate [Halloween] with tales
of murder, mayhem, spirits, and ghosts.” (retrieved 3/16/08
from URL http://www.green-wood.com/).
They also host numerous charitable events, and performing arts. Oakwood Cemetery
in Troy, NY, hosts performing arts, and bird watching and has a calendar, a Halloween
party, and art auctions. Many older burial grounds host guided tours (as do many
not-for-profit cemeteries who have seen cuts of state funds).
Lloyd, a funeral director I interviewed from a small, southern
town, told me even he has seen a rise in themed funerals which,
given the conservative nature of the region where his business
is located, surprises most people with whom he talks. Lloyd,
who is also an ordained minister, told me about one of his parishioner’s
funerals that he directed:
We had a lady pass away and she collected cookie jars. She just loved them! And
gave everyone and their dogs cookies. So when her funeral took place, all around
the room they had cookie jars and they were open and they had cookies in them.
Different flavors and types. We had red punch over here. Now was that a three-ring
circus? It felt like it at times but it was bringing to memory the things that
were important to Claire. She had an antique electric stove. Just a little short
one and it was what she had baked her cookies in. It was in the funeral parlor.
It was sitting there. We had different potholders and stuff.
When I asked him whether he was influenced by the numbers of
customers who wanted a themed funeral, Lloyd, who is usually
quite animated, turned solemn when he replied, “My funeral
is already taken care of. It’s written down
step by step. I’m going to lay in state in my church.
My songs are going to be ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ and
Tammy Wynette’s, ‘I’m
One of a Kind.’ I’m going to have my signature
and a grand piano on the casket lid. That’s me. I love
my piano I love playing the piano.” Lloyd
finds great pleasure and fulfillment in music and he has designated
particular symbols and goods to articulate the deep meanings
music has had in shaping his identity. Lloyd told me that he
even purchased small tokens to further express this—little
key chains with musical notes on them, which will be handed
out to his funeral attendees.
Themes can be quite attractive for consumers since they have
the potential to liven up what has historically been a dour
event. One can only imagine the fun that can be had at this
customer’s funeral: “‘We want a nice
party. It’ll be so pretty. It’ll be held in a public park with fountains
with a tent, and very good catering’… And the music must have a
water theme, [the customer] said, such as the Beatles’ hit ‘Yellow
Submarine.’” (Montet 2007: NP). Theming holds particular appeal
to an industry beset by negative publicity for widespread corporatization (a
lá HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) or corruption (cf. Jessica
Mitford’s bestseller, the scathing The American Way of Death)
since themes divert attention away from them (Gottdiener 2001).
Another area we are seeing theming at work in the funeral industry
has to do with innovative technologies for body disposal. Here
too themed products are increasingly being incorporated into
the mainstream and contractually linked to large-scale funeral
companies. In fact, the kinds of product differentiation are
beginning to inhabit the mainstream funerary landscape feature
products or services most Americans once considered off-limits.
For instance, at Honor Industries a representative takes a
tablespoon of cremated ashes and makes a pencil out of them.
Then an artist is commissioned to sketch a portrait of the
deceased with that pencil. Similarly, Ashes to Portraits mixes
cremains with oil paint before painting a portrait of the deceased.
And new themed products appear on the market everyday.
One can prove one’s dedication to a particular athletic franchise by purchasing
an urn in the shape of a football helmet with your team’s logo emblazoned
on the side, or a replica of hockey’s Stanley Cup. Busts
depicting the decedent are increasingly popular.
Now a relatively well-known company, Life Gem, transforms the
carbon-artifacts of human remains into precious jewels. And
still another company puts the ashes in a high-altitude balloon
for launching where the balloon ruptures at a certain height
and sends the cremains to the four winds.
It is probably no surprise that in the society
where “image is everything,” branding
of products has taken on an increasingly vital role. This is no less true with
funeral products. Today various actors in the industry maintain contractual relations
with a wide variety of brands: from major league baseball and NASCAR to Thomas
Kincade (“Painter of Light”) and the Vatican. Eternal
Image, a publicly-traded company has purchased branding rights
to Star Trek, the American Kennel Club, and Collegiate Licensing,
among many others, all of which can be used to create highly
elaborated themed environments for funerary celebrations.
Since American consumers have grown accustomed to eating and
shopping in themed environments, themes help make funerals
more “cognizable” by
introducing symbols, ideas, sounds, and images from popular
culture into funerary rites. Thus the event of death can be
reframed to look like other forms of quotidian consumption.
Theming, then, when applied to the funeral industry makes its
products more recognizable, more appealing, and thus more consumable.
The funeral industry can be seen to appear like so many other
spaces of social consumption. In this way, distinctiveness,
which when applied to funerary rites typically has negative
associations (i.e., sadness, grief, dread, anxiety, etc.),
can be made more banal
and less distinctive; the strangeness of funeral businesses
can give way to environments with which consumers are more
familiar and (ostensibly) more comfortable. Rather than heighten
the awareness that death is special and deserves to be treated
as such (i.e., not commercialized),
efforts can be made to attenuate the distinctiveness of death
and its highly commercialized care-takers.
For well over a century, the funeral industry has played a significant
role in the lives of Americans—or, more specifically, with
the end of Americans’ lives. This is in spite of the fact
that one can, in many states, bury the deceased in one’s
backyard. While licensing varies from state to state in the U.S.,
consumer spending in the funeral industry is, for the most part
discretionary. Yet, for over a century now, most Americans have
accepted the role of the funeral industry as a natural part of
the lifecourse and throughout most of its history the funeral
industry has provided products and services that contributed
to solemnity rather than spectacle. Now, it seems as though the
morbid is increasingly being extricated from the moribund; grief
elided from the grieving. This is probably less unusual that
it first appears. As Zizek (2002) writes: “On today’s
market we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant
properties: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer
without alcohol…” So should it be any different
for a service industry that happens to intervene in the lives
of individuals facing end-of-life matters?
Funerary goods and services of course matter to the ways we relate
to the dead and to the ways in which we create memories (Hallam
and Hockey 2001). To be sure, the funeral industry disposes of
dead bodies but it can also entertain, comfort, enlighten, shame,
inspire, and frustrate consumers. In so doing, it has the power
to regulate and inscribe us. It also contributes to how we think
about death, memory, and life, and shapes how we care for, remember,
and consider and re-consider loved ones who are both alive and
deceased. Thus, as the funeral industry continues to develop
and market novel, experiential goods, the means of consumption
as well as the sacred ritual forms that emerge from them will
inevitably change in their… wake.
Bauman, Zygmunt. 2007. Consuming Life. Cambridge,
Caru, Antonella and Bernard Cova. 2007. “Consuming
Experiences: An Introduction.”
Pp. 3-16 in Consuming
Experience, edited by A. Caru and B. Cova. London,
Cromer, Michelle. 2006. Exit Strategy: Thinking Outside
the Box. New York: Penguin.
Cullen, Lisa T. 2006. Remember Me: A Lively Tour of
the New American Way of Death. New York: Collins.
Gottdiener, Mark. 2001. The Theming of America: American
Dreams, Media Fantasies,
and Themed Environments, 2nd Ed. Boulder, CO: Westview
Hallam, Elizabeth and Jenny Hockey. 2001. Death, Memory
and Material Culture. Oxford, UK: Berg.
Leland, John. 2006. “It’s My Funeral and I’ll
Serve Ice Cream if I Want To.” Retrieved 1/15/08
Montet, Virginie. 2007. “US Sees Boom in Funeral
Planning.” Retrieved 1/3/08 from http://iafrica.com/news/features/962248.htm
Pancrazio, Angela C. 2007. “Some Funerals Evolving
Into Life Celebrations.” USA
Today. Retrieved 11.1.07 from:
Peterson, Richard A. and N. Anand. 2004. “The Production
of Culture Perspective.” Annual Review of Sociology 30:311-334.
Rizer, George.  2005. Enchanting a Disenchanted
World, Second Ed. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Smith, Ronald G. E. 1997. The Death Care Industries
in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1983. Historical Capitalism.
London, UK: Verso.
------.1998. Utopistics: Or Historical Choices of the
Twenty-First Century. New York: The New Press.
Weiss, Michael J. 2001. “Dead but Not Necessarily
Buried.” American Demographics,
Zizek, Slavoj. 2002. Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
Five Essays on September 11
and Related Dates. London, UK: Verso.
>>> back to Consumers,
Commodities & Consumption, Vol. 10(1) December 2008.