Albion Monitor /Features


Ain't Got no Respect

by Jeff Elliott

Are morticians professionals, like doctors and lawyers --or businessmen, like the guy who owns a 20 minute oil & lube?

"The major point that you have missed since 1961 is that human beings, relatively educated, are going to spend their hard-earned money on things that make them feel good," says the angry mortician, his finger stabbing the air in Jessica's direction.

It's part of the fundamental gripe heard from seemingly everyone in the industry: outsiders don't understand them. They don't get the respect for the important job that they do, without which civilization (as we know it) would darn near collapse. They're just trying to help folks out: what's wrong with that? Don't they have a right to sell you overpriced goods and services if you want them -- or can be convinced you want them?

There are other interesting identity conflicts within the trade. Do they see themselves as professionals, like doctors and lawyers -- or businessmen, like the guy who owns a 20 minute oil & lube? When asked by outsiders, they strike the professional pose. You hear much about the adroit skills as a counsellor their job requires, deftly guiding the grieving -- or warring -- family through their time of need. Still others portray themselves as pseudo-clergy: "Well, you know it's kind of a ministry," one woman told me during the conference.

This is the public face; amongst themselves, they chat about new ways to push items with hefty markups. In that context, they're simply retailers hawking merchandise, moving product. One mortician bragged that his business does 500 "pieces" a year. Only later did I realize that he meant corpses.

"Do you think what we do is valuable?"

After Decca's speech, I discussed the image problem swith Tom Fisher, a North Dakota mortician and writer for Mortuary Management.

"The greatest tragedy in this industry is that it is such a fragmented, provincial and populistic industry...How are we gonna get an image? She said this morning, 'the consumer doesn't know anything about us.' Well, I think frankly that the consumer knows a hellova lot more about us than they did thirty years ago, and she helped prompt that! [laughs] I don't think I know everything about Nordstrom's either when I go in there, but man, I'll tell yout with the constraints imposed on the industry..." He shakes his head sadly.

Fisher is bullish on the funeral trade, and sees great hope in the number of young people choosing the profession. It is something he emphasizes in television commercials advertising his mortuary. "I produce them, script them, do the whole thing. But it doesn't star me -- it stars our young staff. And I don't have them sitting there looking at the camera; I flip them into various positions where they're talking to one another, talking to a family type of situation, placing them in a scenario where it appears that way, maybe talking on the phone, maybe smiling, that type of thing -- 'approachable commercials' is what I call them. The message is strong, hard, and good. It talks about sensitivity and sensibility and integrity, and, of course, youth -- which responds to change at that difficult time in your life."

While smiling young undertakers may go far in North Dakota, it won't solve the fundamental industry problem. During the question-and-answer after her speech, one of the undertakers asked Decca an interesting, simple question: "Do you think what we do is valuable?"

"Oh, of course," she replied. "But I very much doubt if the embalming, the viewing of the body, the purchase by the family of a casket that can cost up to $85,000, I doubt whether it does the family any good or anybody except the funeral director good, that's all.

"I am absolutely in favor of total freedom of choice in funerals as in anything else. Take weddings; somebody mentioned weddings the other day. I think weddings -- of course they're very different, because in a wedding everybody's got their eyes open -- you can either get married for absolutely nothing before a judge or Justice of the Peace, or you can have a wonderful fancy party. That's completely up to you to choose."

The wedding comparison is another point that rankles Fisher. Why doesn't that business have critics like theirs? "One interesting thing about the funeral industry; everybody talks pricepriceprice. I said, 'nobody complains about the wedding industry.' And it is an industry: the average cost of a wedding in this nation is $17,000. Jessica said to me, 'there's no pressure put on them.' I said, 'are you kidding? It's terrible in the wedding industry.' That young bride in her late teens or early twenties has stars in her eyes, because its the biggest event of her life. This is the big spotlight and she's susceptible to whom? The caterer, the people selling her the gowns, the florist, on down the list, till it comes to $17,000. And that's the national average; out here in Marin County, with any type of formal ceremony, it's $35-40,000. In the funeral industry, the funeral director is but one appendage, the visible appendage. He gets on the average, for casket, other merchandise, $3,900."

Behind it all is the same, unspoken theme

Fisher's flawed metaphors -- that a funeral home is like Nordstrom's and an undertaker is just an "appendage" like a wedding caterer -- aren't unusual. Similar comparisons are often heard from funeral directors. Behind it all is the same, unspoken theme: It's not their fault that people are susceptible when they're grieving. It's just selling, and selling is as American as apple pie, It's a free marketplace, and they can always go elsewhere. And so on. I have met capitalism's greatest champions, and they carry a lingering whiff of formaldehyde.

While the audience laughed appreciatively at Decca's funny stories when she spoke of events 35 years ago, a few turned downright surly later, when her comments turned to controversies in the industry today.

Towards the end she told an old ancedote that touched on that most sensitive nerve: The ultimate value of their trade. She recalled being questioned by an industry leader who asked, "I have a hypothetical question. Mr. X dies of jaundice, and his widow has chosen a yellow casket, which will bring out the jaundice condition. Wouldn't it be incumbent on the funeral director to point out this is the wrong choice, and suggest something different?" Decca quipped, "I thought it might be nice to have a matching one if I died of jaundice. If I died of scarlet fever I'd have a red one, too."

From the audience came a grumbling aside: "She's mocking us!"

A thin-skinned lot, they.

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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