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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Funerals that Kill

Honoring the dead is one of the few ancient traditions we still see today, reaching back hundreds of thousands of years ago and spanning almost every culture. The celebration of a loved ones life, and commemoration and mourning of their death is an integral part of our species culture. According to a 2016 Cremation and Burial Report released by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), nearly half of all deaths result in a burial (“2016”). And yet, these modern burials may just be one of the worst ways you can honor your loved one. Why? Traditional funerals are ineffective, expensive, and harmful to the environment. Anyone who plans on eventually dying should consider how it is they want their funeral proceedings to go, before beginning their journey to the pearly gates.

Burying our dead may have seemed reasonable when the population was half its current size and resources felt so limitless. But with approximately 32 square feet of land being used per burial, the present population (especially those in urban areas) can expect an eventual land shortage. A study conducted by University Professors of Community and Regional Planning Carlton Basmajian and Christpoher Coutts, found that within eighteen years of 2024, 76 million Americans are expected to reach their life expectancy age of seventy-eight, and if all those individuals were buried in standard plots, cemeteries in the U.S would need an additional 130 square miles of land to meet the needs (305-317). To put that number in perspective, Las Vegas is just 5 square miles larger, at roughly 135 square miles.

The population is increasing at exponential rates, and urban areas are already battling over land. In their study, Basmajian and Coutts said there have been very few new cemeteries established in recent years, particularly in major cities. “In the more populated areas,” Basmajian says, “there’s really not a place where you can buy 50 acres of land where you can just clear it and use it for burials” (302). In these urban areas, people are being forced to bury their dead further and further from their home. And while there are larger amounts of empty land in more rural areas, available space will run out eventually. So the baby boomers may not have to worry about where they’ll be laid to rest, but millenials surely will.

The higher demand for space also has cemeteries bringing up their prices, but expenses relating to burial plots are only part of the cost issue. The last thing a family member needs while grieving over the loss of a loved one, is to simultaneously lose thousands of dollars, and yet, the NFDA puts the average cost of a funeral between $7,000 and $10,000 dollars, a 29% increase since 2005 (“2016”).

Some funeral services offer package deals that advertise large discounts on caskets; however, the deals often tack on many unnecessary add-ons at a much higher retail price (like flowers and programs) that result in the buyer paying more. Not only are many of the items unnecessary and overpriced, but looking through an itemized list of the regular fees include many vague or repetitive descriptions of services such as, “Use of faculties/staff for funeral ceremony,” and “Use of facilities/staff for viewing.” It’s also common to hear families being told that embalming the body before burial is necessary or required, which isn’t true. According to Funeral Consumers Alliance, embalming is only common in Canada and the U.S, but it isn’t required unless traveling across state lines (“Embalming”). There is a time frame where you have to do something with the body, but there are alternatives such as refrigeration, which generally costs much less. Ultimately, many grieving family members simply won’t have the desire or energy to delve into all the little details, and funeral directors can take advantage of the grief to further their own business needs.

This isn’t to say all funeral directors are manipulative salesmen. There are many mom-and-pop services that may genuinely want to honor the dead. Unfortunately, many small businesses are being bought out by larger corporations who keep the original name while driving up prices. An article written for Bloomsberg Business discusses how the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) allowed Service Corporation International (SCI) to acquire its largest rival, Stewart Enterprises. After complains from advocates for funeral customers, the FTC investigated and found that the proposed $1.4 billion deal would most likely lessen competition in 59 communities throughout the U.S (Barrett). It’s apparent that many funeral practices (at least in recent years) are more focused on making money than providing the best service for the dead and those left to grieve.

The expensive caskets and add-ons don’t just impact your wallet, but the environment as well. The Scientific American shares an article discussing what they call “American funerals,” stating that each year, funerals are responsible for the felling of 30 million board feet for casket wood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and 800,000 gallons of embalming liquid (“Eco”). Perhaps the most harmful of these materials is the embalming fluid, with its main ingredient consisting of the chemical known as formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is listed as a dangerous carcinogen under OSHA guidelines, and its use is strictly regulated (“Formaldehyde”). Long exposures to carcinogenic substances are known to be responsible for causing cancer, and studies done by The National Cancer Institute on workers in formaldehyde industries further back this up. The studies found that embalmers (especially those working for 20 years or more) had much higher rates of leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer than those not often exposed to formaldehyde (Beane). Considering that embalming (and many other aspects of how we care for dead bodies) is not mandatory, the question begs to be asked. Why do we still do it and what are the alternatives?

Some people argue that the current burial system is necessary in the event that a body needs to be exhumed at a later date. However, according to the Macmillan Encyclopedia of Dying and Death, exhuming a body is not allowed unless under substantial and necessary circumstances. On the rare occasion additional evidence is needed within a criminal investigation, a court may exhume a body (“Exhumation”). In cases of murder or death under suspicious circumstances, it is more understandable for a family members decision to bury the deceased in a casket, but the larger majority of the population should start looking at other options.

There are many different alternatives to the customary funerals we see today. Cremation is highly popular in other countries and certainly addresses the first two issues of space and expenses, but due to the high temperatures needed to turn bone to ash, there is still an impact on the environment with the burning of fossil fuels. A similar option that is not yet available essentially freeze dries the body, vibrates it into dust, and is then able to be used as soil—a process that is much more environmentally friendly (Grundhauser). This process is called promession and was successfully tested on pigs, but has not yet been tested on humans.

Perhaps the most naturalistic of these options gaining traction within communities, particularly within the green movement, is the option of a natural burial. This preference is derived from the idea that our bodies can be returned to the soil without any chemicals injected into us to allow our bodies to naturally decompose and become a part of the environment. Bodies are wrapped in cloth or buried in biodegradable caskets, sometimes still laid to rest in cemeteries but often times in backyards. Some people argue against this, citing health risks, but according to The World Health Organization (WHO), “Unless the deceased has died from a highly infections disease, the risk to the public is negligible” (Management). The WHO goes on to say that as long as the body (and by extension fecal excrement) is not exposed to water sources, and proper authorization was obtained, there are no illegalities.

How we are laid to rest will have an effect on the people who live on after us, as the impact we have on the world does not die with us. There are endless ideas for how to honor the deceased, and as humankind has yet to find the cure for death, it is something that society should think about before the decision is forced upon grieving family. We should face our death head on to find the most viable solutions, rather than focusing on outdated traditions. It is in this way that our legacy will linger on, even after we’ve gone.

Works Cited

Barrett, Paul. “How a Funeral Giant Overcame Antitrust Concerns and Gobbled up Its Rival.” Bloomsberg Businessweek. Bloomsberg Finance LP, 2013.

Basmajian, Carlton & Christopher Coutts (2010) Planning for the Disposal of the Dead, Journal of the American Planning Association, 76:3, 305-317, DOI 10.1080/019443610037913.

Beane Freeman L, Blair A, Lubin JH et al. Mortality from lymphohematopoietic malignancies among workers in formaldehyde industries: The National Cancer Institute Cohort. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2009; 101(10):751-761.

“Eco-Afterlife: Green Burial Options.” The scientific American. Retrieved 29 October 2018.

“Embalming: What you Should Know.”, 26 November 2007.

“Exhumation.” Macmillar Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. 5. Nov. 2018

“Formaldehyde.” OSHA Fact Sheet. PDF file. 2011.

Grundhauser, Eric. “A Burial machine that will freeze your corpse, vibrate it to dust, and turn it into soil.” Atlas Obscura. 25 February 2016.

“Management of Dead Bodies.” World Health Organization, 2 November 2016.

“2016 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report Released.”, 2016.

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