How Death Became Big Business in America
And Why We Need to Be Less Dismissive of Other Cultures' Funeral Rituals
In America, death has been big business since the turn of the 20th century. A century has proven the perfect amount of time for its citizens to forget what funerals once were: family- and community-run affairs. In the 19th century, no one would have questioned a wife washing and dressing the body of her husband or a father carrying his son to the grave in a homemade coffin. In an impressively short time, America’s funeral industry has become more expensive, more corporate, and more bureaucratic than any other funeral industry on Earth. If we can be called best at anything, it would be at keeping our grieving families separated from their dead.
Five years ago, when my funeral home was still a gleam in my eye, I rented a hut on a rural lagoon in Belize. At that time I lived the glamorous life of a crematory worker and body transport driver—the hut had to be very inexpensive. It had neither cellphone service nor Wi-Fi. The lagoon was nine miles from the nearest town, reachable only by four-wheel drive. The driver was the caretaker of the property, a 30-year-old Belizean man named Luciano.
To give you a sense of Luciano, he was shadowed everywhere by his pack of loyal, if somewhat emaciated, dogs. When the hut was unoccupied, he would head into the Belizean bush for days at a time, wearing flip-flops, carrying his machete, followed by the dogs. He hunted deer, tapir, and armadillo, and when he caught one he would kill it, flay it, and eat its heart out of its chest.
Luciano asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I worked with the dead, at a crematory, he sat up in his hammock. “You burn them?” he asked. “You barbecue people?”
I considered this description. “Well, the machine is hotter than that. It gets over 1,800 degrees, so you blast right through the ‘barbecue’ stage. But pretty much, yes.” When someone died in Luciano’s community, the family would bring the body home for a full-day wake. Belize has a diverse population, sandwiched between Caribbean and Latin American influences, with English as the national language. Luciano identified as a mestizo—a descendant of the indigenous Maya and the Spanish colonizers.
Luciano’s grandfather was his community’s death attendant, the guy a local family would call to prepare a body. When he arrived, sometimes the body would be in rigor mortis, the muscles rendered so stiff it was a challenge to dress and bathe the corpse. According to Luciano, if that were the case, his grandfather would talk to the body.
“Look, you want to look good in heaven? I can’t dress you if you want to be hard.”
“So your grandfather would talk the corpse out of rigor mortis?” I asked.
“Well, you also had to rub a little rum on it to make it loosen up. But yeah, he would just talk to the body,” he replied.
After convincing the body to loosen up, his grandfather would flip it over on its stomach and press out any purge or gas from decomposition. Kind of like burping a baby—burp it before it burps on you.
“Is that your job in America, too?” he wondered, gazing out over the lagoon.
Of course, the larger cities in Belize have funeral homes that adopted the American business models, upselling families on mahogany caskets and marble headstones. The same push toward modernity goes for Belizean hospitals, which may require that an autopsy be performed, whether the family wants the procedure or not. Luciano’s grandmother, before she died, refused to be cut open. “That’s why we thieved her body from the hospital,” Luciano told me.
“I’m sorry, what?”
I had heard correctly: they stole her body from the hospital. Just wrapped it in a sheet and took it. “What was the hospital going to do to us?” Luciano asked.
When he dies, Luciano would like to be buried in a simple hole, shrouded with an animal skin, with leaves lining the walls of the grave. He plans on designing the animal shroud himself.
He explained that he talks about death “all the time” with his friends. They ask each other, “Hey, what you want when you die?”
Luciano asked, “Don’t people say that where you come from?”
It was hard to explain that, no, for the most part, they really don’t.
“In an impressively short time, America’s funeral industry has become more expensive, more corporate, and more bureaucratic than any other funeral industry on Earth.”
One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death. Why do we refuse to have these conversations, asking our family and friends what they want done with their body when they die? Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put both our pocketbooks and our ability to mourn at risk.
I believed that if I could witness firsthand how death is handled in other cultures, I might be able to demonstrate that there is no one prescribed way to “do” or understand death. In the last several years I have traveled to observe death rituals as they are practiced around the world—in Australia, England, Germany, Spain, Italy, Indonesia, Mexico, Bolivia, Japan, and throughout the U.S. There is much to learn from the cremation pyres of India and the whimsical coffins of Ghana, but the places I chose to visit have tales equally spectacular and less often told. I hope that what I found might help us reclaim meaning and tradition in our own communities. Such reclamation is important to me as a funeral home owner, but more so as a daughter and a friend.
The Greek historian Herodotus, writing over 2,000 years ago, produced one of the first descriptions of one culture getting worked up over the death rituals of another. In the story, the ruler of the Persian Empire summons a group of Greeks before him. Since they cremate their dead, the king wonders, “What would [it] take [for them] to eat their dead fathers?” The Greeks balk at this question, explaining that no price in the world would be high enough to turn them into cannibals. Next, the king summons a group of Callatians, known for eating the bodies of their dead. He asks, “What price would make them burn their dead fathers with fire?” The Callatians beg him not to mention “such horrors!”
That attitude—revulsion at the way other groups handle their dead—has endured through millennia. If you have ever come within 500 feet of a modern funeral home, you know that morticians love the following quote, attributed to William Gladstone, a 19th-century British prime minister:
Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.
They etch the quote onto wall plaques and feature it prominently on their websites alongside American flag GIFs and muzak tracks of “Amazing Grace.” Unfortunately, Gladstone never supplied the equation that would allow us to determine, with his promised “mathematical exactness,” that one particular method of handling the dead is 79.9 percent barbaric while another is 62.4 percent dignified.
(In fact, Gladstone may have never even produced this quote at all. It is first recorded as appearing in the March 1938 issue of The American Cemetery, in an article called “Successful Cemetery Advertising.” I can’t prove Gladstone didn’t say it, but one prominent Gladstone scholar told me he had never come across the quote. The furthest he would go was to say it “sounded like something he could have said.”)
Even if we recognize the benefits of another culture’s ritual, we often allow bias to undermine those feelings of acceptance. In 1636, 2,000 indigenous Wendat people gathered around a communal burial pit on the shores of what is now Lake Huron, Canada. The grave measured six feet deep and 24 feet across, and was designed to hold the bones of 700 individuals. For the bones, the burial pit was not their first stop after death. When the bones were still fresh corpses, they were wrapped in beaver-skin robes and placed on wooden scaffolds ten feet off the ground. Every decade or so, the scattered Huron–Wendat communities would gather their remains for the communal burial, known as the Feast of the Dead. In preparation, the bodies were brought down from the scaffolds. Family members, mostly women, were tasked with scraping the bones clean of any lingering flesh.
How difficult it was to clean the bones varied according to how long the person had been dead. Some bodies had decomposed, and only dried, paper-thin skin still clung to the skeleton. Other bodies were preserved and near mummified, requiring the desiccated flesh to be pulled off in strips and burned. The most challenging bodies belonged to the recently deceased, still swarming with maggots.
This cleaning ritual was witnessed and recorded by Jean de Brébeuf, a Catholic missionary from France. Instead of reacting with horror, he wrote with great admiration of the intimate way the families treated the bodies. In one such case, Brébeuf observed a family unwrap a corpse oozing with decomposition. The family, undaunted, plunged in to clean the bones and rewrap them in a new beaver robe. Brébeuf asked if this was not “a noble example to inspire Christians.” He expressed similar admiration when it came to the ceremony at the burial pit. When the bodies were covered over with sand and bark, he found it “heartening to see” such “works of mercy” take place.
In that moment, standing at the edge of the pit, I’m sure Brébeuf was moved by the death rituals of the Wendat people. But it did not change his final, fervent hope: that all of their customs and ceremonies would be obliterated and replaced with Christian ceremonies, so they could be “sacred” as opposed to “foolish and useless.”
It should be stated that the indigenous people of Canada were not altogether open-minded toward the alternative rituals that missionary de Brébeuf offered. Historian Erik Seeman wrote that the First Nations and Europeans often discovered “chilling perversions” about each other. How were the Wendats expected to believe the French Catholics had noble aims, when they freely admitted to cannibalism, bragging that they consumed flesh and blood (of their own God no less) in a practice called Communion? Since religion is the source of many death rituals, often we invoke belief to denigrate the practices of others. As recently as 1965, James W. Fraser wrote in Cremation: Is It Christian? (spoiler: no) that to cremate was “a barbarous act” and “an aid to crime.” To a decent Christian, it is “repulsive to think of the body of a friend being treated like a beef roast in the oven, with all its running fats and sizzling tissues.”
I have come to believe that the merits of a death custom are not based on mathematics (e.g., 36.7 percent a “barbarous act”), but on emotions, a belief in the unique nobility of one’s own culture. That is to say, we consider death rituals savage only when they don’t match our own.
On my last day in Belize, Luciano took me to the cemetery that houses his grandparents (including the stolen grandmother). The cemetery was filled with above-ground concrete graves, some well-tended, some fallen into disrepair. One cross, knocked over into the weeds, was wrapped in a pair of ladies’ underwear. Someone had taken black spray paint and crudely painted “Gaza Earth” and “Repent All Man” on a pair of graves.
Back in the far corner, under a tree, his grandparents’ caskets lay stacked one on top of the other, enclosed in one of the concrete-covered graves. “My grandmother, she didn’t want all this cement. She wanted just a hole in the ground, dust to dust. But, you know . . .”
Luciano lovingly swept the dead leaves off the top of the grave.
What struck me was how Luciano had been present for every step of his grandmother’s death. From stealing her body from the hospital, to holding a wake where the family drank rum and played ranchera music (Grandma’s favorite), to tending her grave years later.
Contrast that with the Western funeral industry, where mourners must navigate purposeful obfuscations after every loss. Most people could not tell you what chemicals are pumped into their mother during an embalming procedure (answer: some combination of formaldehyde, methanol, ethanol, and phenol), or why they are required to purchase a $3,000 stainless steel vault at the cemetery (answer: so the groundskeeping staff has an easier time mowing the grass). In 2017, an NPR investigation into funeral homes “found a confusing, unhelpful system that seems designed to be impenetrable by average consumers, who must make costly decisions at a time of grief and financial stress.”
“The good news: we are not beholden to our distance from and shame around death.”
We need to reform our funeral industry, introducing new practices that aren’t so profit-oriented, and that do more to include the family. But we cannot begin to reform—or even question!—our death systems when we act like little Jean de Brébeufs, falsely convinced we have it right while all these “other people” are disrespectful and barbarous.
This dismissive attitude can be found in places you’d never expect. Lonely Planet, the largest guidebook publisher in the world, included the idyllic Trunyan cemetery in their book on visiting Bali. In Trunyan, the villagers weave bamboo cages for their dead to decompose in, and then stack the skulls and bones out in the lush green landscape. Lonely Planet, instead of explaining the meaning behind these ancient customs, advised wise travelers to “skip the ghoulish spectacle.”
Cannibalizing your dear old dad like the Callatians may never be for you. It’s not for me, either. Still, it is demonstrably wrong to claim that the West has death rituals that are superior to those of the rest of the world. What’s more, due to the corporatization and commercialization of deathcare, we have fallen behind the rest of the world when it comes to proximity, intimacy, and ritual around death.
The good news: we are not beholden to our distance from and shame around death. The first step to fixing the problem is to show up, to be present and engaged. In large, modern cities like Tokyo and Barcelona, I saw families show up to spend the day with the body and stay to witness the cremation. In Mexico, I saw families visit the cemetery to leave offerings years after the death occurred, ensuring that no one is forgotten.
Excerpted from From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death. Used with permission of W.W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2017 by Caitlin Doughty.