It’s Your Funeral

November 2, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Current funeral fashions . . . illustrate the sad truth that, as a society, Americans are no longer sure what to do with our dead.” So says theologian Thomas Long in an All Souls’ Day op-ed in the Times.

He mentions some of these fashions:
coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; “virtual cemeteries” with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded.
If you don’t believe him, take a look on line, here for example.
(Click on the image for a larger view.)

But the source of this diverse emporium of funeral stuff isn’t our uncertainty over what to do with our dead. Instead, it rises at the intersection of two cherished American ideals: capitalism and individualism.

The American tendency to turn ceremonial occasions into commerce is certainly not news. As Robert Klein said of Washington’s Birthday (back when there still was a Washington’s Birthday and not the generic Presidents’ Day), “I’m sure the father of our country would be pleased to know that his birthday is being honored with a mattress sale.”

Even our most solemn moments, funerals, are opportunities to cash in, as was noted long ago by two Brits – Evelyn Waugh in a comic novel (The Loved One, 1948), and Jessica Mitford in a book of serious reporting (The American Way of Death, 1963).

The combination of capitalism with our value on individualism and freedom of choice gives us in funerals what it gives us in everything from automobiles to breakfast cereal: a wide variety of products.

The loser here is tradition. But tradition has never held much power in the US. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” doesn’t win many arguments here, especially not when it goes up against rational utilitarianism (“but it would be cheaper and quicker to do it this way”). Tradition is also losing out to self-fulfillment and self-expression. Tradition emphasizes the community – past, present, and future – over the individual. It links the individual with past generations and future generations. In most societies, funerals emphasize the primacy of the group and celebrate the deceased as a member of that group, whatever his particular individual quirks might have been.

The new look in funerals celebrates the individual for precisely those things that made him an individual – his particular interests – even though these have nothing to do with the traditions of the community.
One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday mornings, so why are we going to church,” Mr. Duffey said. “Line up his buddies, and hit balls.” Another wanted his friends to ride Harleys down his favorite road, scattering his ashes. [From an article in the Times four years ago.]
The same trend has transformed other religious events like confirmations (“Select a confirmation party theme that celebrates the guest of honors hobbies or passions”) and of course, bar mitzvahs.
a beach themed party will put everyone in a tropical mood. Decorate with orange, pink and green lighting and maybe even some tiki torches! String tiny lanterns across the ceiling and use brightly colored flowers in vases for the centerpieces. Everyone will enjoy a limbo contest especially when its played along with some Hawaiian music.
(And I was worried that the previous post’s picture of a Weimaraner wearing a tallith and yarmulke might have been seen as sacrilegious. What was I thinking?)


Man of Letters said...

Americans certainly are getting over their social anxiety about departing from norms and tradition, but they haven't really gotten over their anxiety about departing from this planet. If anything, our anxiety over death has only increased in the past century as science increasingly gives even the believers in an afterlife pause.

So what do we do? We make fun of death. Horror films, Halloween, etc. These are all ways of trying to make light of the undeniable reality of our own mortality. I see the race car urn in the same way. "Sure, I'm a pile of ashes, but at least I'm in my favorite NASCAR car."

It puts everyone at ease. Obviously it makes no difference to the corpse who is now more relaxed than he or she has ever been, but for those who are expecting death and those who go to the funeral, it can certainly help. And so you get an industry of funeral kitsch (I can't believe I'm even putting those two words together in a sentence) to accommodate that desire to laugh in the face of inevitability.

The Undertaker said...

Bring on the funeral kitsch! What took so long?
A death is one person, a funeral is a gathering of people for that one person. No funeral should be the same.

I have seen and felt firsthand the benefits of hosting a truly personal and unique funeral/memorial for a special person.
for more interesting reading.. check out

Anonymous said...

I remember after my mom died, they tried to sell us on getting some of her ashes turned into a diamond. A DIAMOND.

Irina said...

I like the phrase 'funeral kitsch'. Yes, most people are uncomfortable talking about death and dying but thanks to Death Cafes, The Order of the Good Death and Death Salons, more people are embracing what is inevitable and plan proactively for it. As for the funeral kitsch, here is an honorable mention: the anatomical heart pendant -