Vol. 10, No. 1, December 2008

Themed Death:
Novelty in the Funeral Industry

by George Sanders (sanders4@oakland.edu)

Oakland University

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 [1999] 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 2001: 41).

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 she
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.


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