The death of a loved one is unique in that it's pretty much the only life event that allows you to disregard every rule that society has established for polite interaction with other human beings. We deal with this on a daily basis and try to acquiesce to the family's wishes, no matter how irrational or offensive it might be. You just don't argue with someone in that situation.
"I SAID I WANTED THE BACON SLIGHTLY CRISPY! THIS IS MODERATELY CRIPSY! YOUR COOKING KILLED MY MOTHER!"
So, we've changed directors in charge of arrangements because of some imagined insult to the family, and I've been pulled off funerals because some fundamentalist religions forbid women from performing mortuary duties. But sometimes I'm simply not able to do what they ask, whether it's because it violates their budget, the law, or the fundamental nature of reality. This can present a problem with a heavily grieving individual or family, who cannot understand why I can't fulfill a simple request, especially because their loved one just died!
For example, before viewings, we generally have the family choose the outfit for the decedent. Families like to choose something that was meaningful or special to the person, like a family who brought in a slinky red dress that their mother had been very fond of when she was younger. Unfortunately, the dress was a size 4, and the woman in question was, conservatively, a size 14. I very politely explained that there was no way for her to fit into that dress and asked that they choose something else, but the family insisted. I explained that even if we cut the dress, which we sometimes do if we need to fudge a few sizes, the laws dictating the conservation of volume would prevent their mother from fitting into it. They remained adamant, so we did the best we could to shoehorn this poor woman into it.
"If you think about it, you have to see how this is actually Archimedes' fault."
Sure enough, during the first viewing, the family was horrified, and they tried to blame me. Thankfully, one of the more level-headed family members pointed out that we had strongly advised against it and calmed them down enough to send someone for a new outfit that we switched between viewings.
And then you have to worry about mediating within the family itself. You would think that the death of a loved one is a time to put aside petty differences, but, since the second stage of grief is anger, many people see this as the perfect opportunity to dig up the hatchet. Disputes can range from deciding whether to have a burial or a cremation to arguing if Uncle Ned's or Aunt Edna's flowers should be closer to the casket. We try to encourage compromise as much as possible, but legally, the executor of the will has the final say on funeral arrangements. So by siding with them, we become the bad guy.
"Well, it's mostly because your mother has the legal authority over the funeral, but also, your ideas are just really bad."
Sometimes people just don't like each other, so we have to have segregated viewings and make the different factions take turns, which ultimately gives everyone less time to pay their respects. We've had plenty of fights break out, and we just let them duke it out or call the cops -- we're not allowed to interfere (a director once got cold-cocked trying to break up two brawling women). Really, this is a good life question to ask yourself: "Will people be knife fighting at my funeral?" If the answer is yes, maybe now is the time to sit everyone down and clear the air.
Not terribly long ago, running a funeral home was a very shady business. In 1963, Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, a book that exposed a lot of illicit practices, such as misleading families on prices or insisting that things like embalming were required by law, even if the person was being cremated (it isn't, and now we're required to tell you that). It was bad enough that, in 1984, the FTC passed a series of laws collectively called Funeral Rule that heavily regulated the industry and made everything much more transparent.
Still, there are ways to make money without outright lying.
For example, selling caskets with extended warranties. No, really.
By law, we are required to have a selection of inexpensive caskets prominently displayed in our showroom, but even so, we might have more expensive options under better lighting, or position the label in a way that emphasizes the visual of the casket and draws your eye away from the price tag. We also use basic human behavior to our advantage. Cracked has mentioned before that most humans turn right upon entering a store, and that holds true in the funeral home as well. When you enter our showroom, you'll automatically turn to the right -- and be looking directly at our more expensive caskets.
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"This casket is made of 24-carat gold and is stuffed with California condor feathers. We call it the 'Ehhhh, So-So' model."
Keepsakes are another big moneymaker -- thumbies, jewelry for cremated remains, candles, stationery, engraved photo frames ... whatever your heart desires, all prominently on display. Homes will bundle these things into a package and give it a nice, inconspicuous headline. On our price sheet, the best and most expensive package is labeled "Traditional Funeral." It also plays to a consumer's expectation that package deals have an inherent discount, but if they actually look at the itemized price sheet, everything costs the same as it would a la carte.
Something else less-scrupulous funeral directors can take advantage of is the unspoken fear that people have of "icky" parts of death. There's a very popular perception that embalming preserves the body forever, which people take comfort in, because nobody wants to imagine their loved one decaying in the ground. In truth, embalming fights off decomposition for a few weeks at the most; it is meant purely to preserve the body through the viewings. Nevertheless, funeral homes still offer things like expensive leak-proof or hermetically sealed caskets. Legally, they can't tell you it will prevent decomposition, but the implied understanding is more than enough to get the message across.
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"Please, enjoy this Tales From the Crypt DVD while I see if we have any non-sealed caskets left."
But no, it's not all one big scam. At heart, this business is still about giving people the send-off they would have wanted, and that provides the most comfort to the family. One of the things I love about my job is being able to create a special, personalized experience for each person, even if it's just little stuff.
One of my favorite funerals was for a guy who had been very into Renaissance fair-type events, so a bunch of his friends and family showed up wearing medieval clothes and spoke to everyone in old English. Another client wanted to be buried in his car, so we had the viewing out in the parking lot. In a funeral home in Pittsburgh, a lifelong Steelers fan had a viewing where he was positioned into his favorite recliner with a cigarette and beer, wearing his jersey, while a TV played Steelers highlights.
Friends and family were free to shout his favorite curses at the TV.
Not that it's all about elaborate customized ceremonies for people with tens of thousands of dollars to throw around. Sometimes it's just little touches that don't cost anything. One time, we held a funeral for a young boy and, understandably, the family was taking it very hard. The family mentioned that the boy had been a big fan of Wegmans, so on the way to cemetery, one of my co-workers bought a bunch of balloons from Wegmans and brought them to the family, who released them at the end of the ceremony. That's all -- just a tiny gesture, but the family was touched by it. And it's such a fulfilling experience to be able to bring that kind of relief to people who need it most on a daily basis.
So if you're still wondering what could make someone want to work with dead people day in and day out, that's why.
The one-on-none conversations are a perk, too.
Related Reading: Your doctor has a lot of things he'd just love to say to you, but can't. That's why we let a doctor write all that stuff in a Cracked article. And if you've ever wondered what life is like inside Scientology's secret space navy, we've got that too. We also spoke with a refugee from a Christian fundamentalist cult. And if you've got a story to share, hit us up here.