Mandy Benoualid has been a featured presenter at professional funeral and cemetery conferences and was recently featured as an industry innovator by American Funeral Director Magazine. Jeremy Cohen is an assistant professor in the social sciences at McMaster University who explores the intersections of death, health, and technology in contemporary North American society. They joined host Ian Punnett (Twitter) to discuss the current state of the funeral industry, as well as new trends in funeral practices.
"I think in the West... death has become professionalized and medicalized, and we used to be really up close with our dead loved ones," Benoualid suggested, noting how families used to be allowed to take care of their deceased loved ones at home. She traced the start of the funeral industry to the Civil War when soldiers who died on the battlefield were embalmed in order to return them to their families. Embalming, along with industrialization and ideas about sanitization and disease, led all the way to the modern cemetery and the services provided by funeral homes, she explained. "We lost ownership of our own bodies," Benoualid said. Funeral directors are generally the only ones that can deal with death certificates, she added.
Cohen commented on funeral industry conferences where vendors present new ways to sell death-related services to the grieving. "It is an industry that is always trying to find ways to make profits," he revealed, pointing out how societal pressures also encourages people to spend more money than necessary on their deceased loved ones. The pair estimated the average cost of a traditional burial at $5,000 to $10,000, not including a plot that can cost another $10,000 ($300,000 for a cemetery in Malibu, according to Benoualid), and the typical cost of cremation at $3,000.
"The system is broken in the sense that traditional funerals are no longer meaningful," Benoualid continued. The rate of cremations is increasing with about 60% of families opting for the service in the United States and 73% in Canada. Virtual funerals, which started happening during the Covid lockdowns, continue to be a popular way to send off the departed because they can be very personal as well as affordable, she reported. Cohen noted the increasing interest in green and natural burials, which typically involve no caskets or concrete vaults, and the deceased is buried unembalmed in a shroud in an attempt to return the person to the earth in a natural state.
Open Lines followed in the latter half of the program. Gabriel in Michigan told Ian he was a pagan who was interested in a Viking funeral in which the body of the deceased is burned in open air at sea. He recalled an attempt in the state of Maine to make the practice legal (it failed to pass). As an alternative Gabriel revealed he would like a natural burial so he could become part of a tree instead of being cremated or placed in a casket in the ground. "I envy the dead... that's the attitude a try to take with it," he added.
Jim from San Diego talked about California law which allows for bodies to be turned into compost. "I think that should be standard everywhere... as long as people are onboard with it," Ian suggested at the idea, noting how the process would allow for easy sharing of remains among family members. Frank in New York, an ordained deacon in Roman Catholic Church, shared what he called "the most ridiculous funeral" he has ever officiated. It was for a friend who had requested his son travel in his beloved Dodge Hellcat with his ashes to 25 different places and deposit some of his remains at each destination.