I discovered funeral-industry trade podcasts during a dark night of the soul. I’m allergic to wine, but I’d been drinking it anyway, and as I lay in bed feeling my heart thrash and my sinuses cloud, I contemplated the fact that I now have a circulatory system but someday won’t. This is a fixation of mine that arises with inexplicable and alarming frequency—I’m twenty-five and healthy; I haven’t experienced tremendous loss.
My abstract anxieties about death tend to coalesce around my most concrete repulsion: embalming. That night, in a desperate ploy to overwhelm the circuitry of my fear, I searched for a podcast that would explain the process with clinical precision. That’s how I stumbled across the embalming episode of Deathcast, in which the former body remover Kelsey Eriksson describes draining the body of blood and pumping it full of preservatives. Her voice was lilting and reedy, the sugary pitch of Kristen Bell narrating Gossip Girl, which did not make her description of my grisliest nightmares easier to swallow. In fact, as I learned about “eye caps”—thick, barbed contacts that close eyelids and lend shape to postmortem shrunken eyeballs—my dread clotted into a neurotic fixation. I downloaded podcast after podcast of “death professionals” trading industry tips, promoting hair-raising products and telling one another stories of the trade that are as startling and macabre as urban legends.
I’m not the first lay person to do a deep dive into the media of the funeral trade. In 1961, Jessica Mitford published her sensationally popular book The American Way of Death, a scathing exposé of business practices in the funeral industry, which she sourced in large part from trade magazines. Of these magazines, she writes, “Their very names were captivating: Casket & Sunnyside, Mortuary Management, and my favorite, Concept: The Journal of Creative Ideas for Cemeteries. Once hooked, I found them to be compulsive reading, revealing a fantasy world I never knew existed.”
The fantasy world of the early 1960s—apparent in the industry’s product names and ad campaigns—was indebted to shopping malls and space exploration: a mattressed casket (“the revolutionary Perfect-Posture bed”), a gravesite that constantly plays “piped in pop hymns,” and “Futurama, the casket styled for the future.” Today, funeral trade media is indebted to Silicon Valley. Among funeral podcasts of the past five years are Funeral Gurus, Death Goes Digital, and End-of-Life University. These podcasts advertise a baffling array of products, from cloud-based video tribute software to an “aftercare service” that automatically sends cards to grieving families to a company that preserves and frames a decedent’s tattoos. The language of disruption, branding, and organic content is close at hand: “JET SETTIN’ & CONVENTION HUSTLIN’,” “Funeral Home & Cemetery Synergy,” and “Swansongs—How to Send a Memory to the Future” are some of the episodes currently on my phone.
I’m jarred by this merging of burial traditions with digital consumerism, though in reading Mitford, I realize it’s inevitable. “Simplicity to the point of starkness,” Mitford writes, “the plain pine box, the laying out of the dead by friends and family who also bore the coffin to the grave—these were the hallmarks of the traditional American funeral until the end of the nineteenth century.” The twentieth century trends that characterized my grandparents’ funerals (embalming, elaborate funeral homes, floral arrangements, silklined caskets) are not, as I assumed, timeless—or even particularly traditional. They were invented, Mitford argues, by the funeral industry to move product. America prospered and death followed suit with aspirational suburban luxe: the air-conditioned mausoleum, the sculpted memorial park. I admit that it’s fitting. My pearl-clutching reaction to every episode of Death Goes Digital seems ludicrous when I think of how much of my time on earth I spend online.
More unsettling to me is the knowledge of how many profit opportunities will arise from the most dreaded event of my life. The most business-y show in the funeral trade is the weekly podcast and YouTube series Funeral Nation TV. The show’s hosts are Ryan Thogmartin, the CEO of a “social media content agency that focuses on storytelling for funeral companies” and Jeff the “funeral commander” Harbeson, who describes himself as “a little mix of Ron Burgundy and Rush Limbaugh.” The show—whose clickbaity episode titles include “GET READY FOR THE SUPER BOWL OF FUNERAL EXPOS” and “Got corpse?”—is a testosterone-soaked frolic through the problems and opportunities of the funeral business, with the apparent aims of promoting products, hyping the audience for funeral conventions, and making funeral homes more profitable. Among the show’s innovations is a segment called “WTF,” which stands for “what the funeral,” in which the hosts shame funeral professionals for poor business practices, such as advertising a funeral home on a trash can, or misspelling hearse.
To view death through the lens of profit seems indelicate, at best, or perhaps even indecent. Mitford argues this forcefully, chronicling a nationwide pattern of abusive practices—price fixing, high-pressure sales tactics, and outright lying about the particulars of the law—designed to take advantage of a consumer base that is almost exclusively deceased or bereaved.
In the context of the relentless hawking of death products, Mitford’s pursuit of the cheapest and simplest death seems a necessary liberation from a bloated and predatory industry.
The now-defunct podcast Funeral Pro Chat, though, with its focus on minority burial traditions, gives a more nuanced perspective. The traditions Mitford wrote about belong largely to white Christians, whereas other faiths, cultures, and races have a different relationship to what Mitford considered the funeral industry’s excesses. This is particularly true for African Americans. “Because of the discrimination and degradation faced in slavery,” says the historian Suzanne E. Smith, “there is a different intensity about what a proper burial should be within African American society.” Elaborate funerals have been an important way for black Americans to celebrate marginalized lives—hardly the bald exploitation Mitford portrays. Furthermore, black-owned funeral homes have a history and importance that is neither invented nor inflated. These funeral homes bolster the economies of segregated communities, provide space for community organizing, and black funeral directors have long been civic leaders—in the South, they would often shuttle Martin Luther King in their hearses to keep him safe between speeches.
Another critique of Mitford is that her focus was too narrow. In addition to financial harm, some believe that the funeral industry has inflicted psychological harm, estranging Americans from the reality of death by dressing it up and tucking it away. Caitlin Doughty, a thirty-three-year-old funeral director in Los Angeles, is the (softly goth) face of this idea. In her popular YouTube series Ask a Mortician, Doughty covers topics from what happens to breast implants during cremation, to whether corpses poop. “I know that conversations on necrophilia are not for everyone,” she says with her signature blend of camp and candor, “even though they should be, because everybody benefits from rational educational exposure to taboo topics.”
Doughty, who once worked in the same crematory that saw to Jessica Mitford’s body, aspires to reintegrate death into everyone’s lives. Just as Funeral Nation TV channels the ethos of digital entrepreneurship, Doughty taps into the pick-your-own-apples set, encouraging families to wash and dress their dead, keep them in the home for a viewing, eschew embalming, and explore natural burial options. “I want society to return to an appreciation for decomposition,” she says, “and return to an appreciation of us as organic matter and animals.” To wash down these earnest and difficult statements, she gives us animations of cats with angel wings and an image of her own face on the body of the grim reaper.
To me, Doughty’s point lands not because of her perverse juxtaposition of death and humor but because of its relationship to the zeitgeist. I imagine that my grandmother—a housewife in an era of sterile supermarket foods and airtight bomb shelters—must have found embalming and double-walled caskets just as compelling as I, in a time of urban farming and climate change, find natural burial. Though Doughty frames her work as returning to an older attitude toward death, I don’t think that’s quite right—Mitford correctly implies that no burial can be timeless, because no death occurs outside of time. Even a natural burial, if I chose one tomorrow, would be consumerist and digital, since it would be a choice made in reaction to how I’ve lived, enabled by late-night, morbid googling and by the flourishing array of death options (hydro cremation, burial pods, cryonics, body farms) for every consumer micro-niche.
Unlike Mitford, I’m not categorically appalled by the notion of monetizing death, but nor do I find the array of products and choices liberating. To me, the appeal of funeral podcasts is elsewhere: in their inadvertent humor and their glib or extravagant treatments of my most fundamental fear. Deathcast’s host Kelsey Eriksson’s twitter bio reads, “I used to deliver dead bodies, now I deliver pizza.” The opening sequence of the YouTube series Funeral Cribs (MTV’s Cribs but for high-end funeral homes) is better produced than early seasons of the Kardashians. On Jeff Harbeson’s personal YouTube channel, he stands in front of a camouflage blanket, dressed in sunglasses and military fatigues, and implores his audience to “come on out of your safe space and listen to a message from the funeral commander.” To dwell in these death-adjacent media, unable to decide if I’m experiencing revulsion or delight, is an enchanting distraction. My fear of death seems unshakeable, but funeral trade media never fail, at least for a moment, to replace my dread with wonder.
Sylvie McNamara lives in New York
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