Subtract the sorrow and suffering, and death is an ornamental process of perfunctory routines for all parties untouched by it. Someone must carefully place the dead man's smile, press his last suit, print his prayer cards, balance his books, dig his grave. Those who comprise the death care industry, as it is often referred to internally, are the stewards of passing, the corporate Charons. It is a field without glamour or morbidity.
The International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association (ICCFA) is the largest trade association representing the entire spectrum of the funerary sector. Comprised of over 7,500 cemeteries, funeral homes, crematories, burial vault companies, bronze and granite manufacturers and associated businesses that range from funeral home management software to personalized urn designers, these disparate suppliers, manufacturers, laborers, and salesmen fit together to create a patchwork portrait of the dying economy in America. This is the business of death.
And that business is good. $16 billion a year good, in fact, a figure that is mostly insulated from the ebbs and flows of the general economy and will only continue to grow. People always die.
Coldspring private mausoleum (Marc Yearsley)
Designer caskets (Marc Yearsley)
An international death care meetup in Las Vegas is unique, if only for being as close to a misnomer as possible. National corporations exist, but they are few: big casket manufacturers, bronze companies, and cemetery and funeral home conglomerates.
Dying and death care are essentially local concerns, public welfare issues, and so they impact us along strict community lines. The geography of death is mapped on people first, and as such the death care industry is overwhelmingly regional. People like to stay where they are even as it becomes easier to move away. Families are buried together. Bodies don't travel unless they have to.
This convention plays host an older crowd: Baby Boomers who skew white, male, and broadly conservative in the most abstract sense. A kind of inescapable ancestry is present within the business. Funeral directors beget funeral directors and the pattern repeats, at least on the management side of things. These are careers of blood.
Coming of age in a death care family is a procession of not immediately peculiar discoveries. My father has a small, casket-shaped paperweight on his desk. As a child I'd watch him in the basement with a television and two VCRs diligently copying hundreds of homemade instruction videos filmed inside of a mausoleum for his casket protection business. In the furnace room, there are hundreds of slides showing tombs overrun with decomposition and infestation. I learned that dying is a spiritual event, death is biological, and death care managerial. I know that you need no less than 4 rolls of black plastic wrap when cleaning a crypt.
The best way to mask the smell of decomposition? A chemical called Kill Odor. Bahama mama is the preferred scent.
A death care industry convention is much like any other corporate convention—a routine business function for industry suppliers. They're social events in exotic (American) destinations buttressed by cocktail hours, networking, small talk, and presentations. Attendees range from Matthews International, one of the largest organizations in the ICCFA and the only publicly traded supplier in the industry, to something insane called Disrupt Media, which featured an empty booth of nonsensical advertisements.
Small market designer urns are emblematic of the bell curve. You would be surprised how much fluid and material a body can release after death. The absorbent sheet for my father's product is designed to absorb up to 7 gallons at a time in perpetuity.
The ICCFA belongs in Las Vegas, as both seem to represent some kind of psychic fault line in the American consciousness. Vegas is a destination for entertainment, a way to shut down your brain. All narcotizing lights and noise deposited into a desert of anxiously manicured edges. Fresh buildings are always built before others are torn down—just like these funeral parlor make-up artists, diminishing suffering through superior coverage, we liberally open ourselves up whole, widen to keep our eyes filled with neon and our brain stems soaked in alcohol.
This year's meeting was held at the Mandalay Bay, a massive gold-windowed structure that inaugurates the Vegas Strip. Top 40 music drones a notch too loud, louder than one would expect, but also seems to hover a dozen feet above us. Cheap white plastic tablecloths that tear too easily cover little four-seater outposts next to the tepid food; these feeding areas dot the fringes of the exhibition hall. What's the difference between a cavernous convention hall and a tomb? The steamed vegetables were good, the three similar iterations of ceviche a little unnerving if only for the size of the shrimp. The roast beef looked as if it were animated. Everything gets thrown away.
Pete Rose was there, and is slightly more expressive than a corpse, gamely signing autographs until he can get back to the casino. Heisman-winner Archie Griffin is escorted around the premises before being planted at the entrance to take photos. The ICCFA was proud to have Stedman Graham give the keynote speech, lauding his early promotion of multiculturalism in the workplace. He shills diversity as good business. The connection between these people is that there isn't one.
Like Vegas, there is a superficial performance to the death care industry today, that awareness of window dressing that for many actually enhances the experience. As if we believe that if we surround ourselves with enough people in a place with enough electricity we are essentially managing God.
In his series of observations of our country compiled in America, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard often finds himself returning to the subject of death. But as he wanders around New Mexico, around L.A., around New York, heat and technology follow as well:
And that smile everyone gives you as they pass, the friendly contraction of the jaws triggered by human warmth...signifies only the need to smile. It is a bit like the Cheshire Cat's grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotion has disappeared...It is indeed the smile the dead man will wear in his funeral home, as he clings to a hope of maintaining contact even in the next world. The smile of immunity, the smile of advertising.
Memorial jewelery (Marc Yearsley)
An older demographic, a more traditional line of work, and a more conservative experience don't exactly put the field on a path towards the cutting edge, so everyone is trying to understand and navigate the impact that technology and the internet will have on death care.
Most of the early solutions are passing fads: personalizing Facebook memorial pages, start-ups that will manage your online archive, silly companies for digital memories that are no more advanced than an Enhanced CD. Bite Apple's aesthetic enough and anything looks futuristic.
These newer death care technologies are attempting to digitize an aspect of memorialization itself. None of what we have so far is necessarily compelling, but it speaks to the possibility of a world where death is divorced from biological dying and mourning extends beyond the analog ephemera of the funeral industry.
As we become more comfortable with death—and we'd better, because the death rate is going to skyrocket in the next few years—the notion of the passage will overtake that of the end, and perhaps the mourning experience will be more integrated and less traumatic.
As it stands now (and as it has always stood), the grieving process is a vulnerable time. Without a plan, in the case of these unexpected or sudden losses, the last thing anyone wants to think about is what the coffin looks like or what kind of flowers to buy or what to pick out for the last outfit, let alone discuss preventative measures for the prospect that anywhere from 3 to 20 years down the road their loved ones emulsified remains will slowly seep out of their ten thousand dollar crypt.
Mel Pax Cosmetics (Marc Yearsley)
Funeral One (Marc Yearsley)
Is adaptation the future? Does it matter? Will those coming up in the industry, more technologically literate and probably more educated, push the death care industry into a new territory? Most of these people are just salesmen. These questions are treated with passive disregard, because those unwilling to change in an industry where change can only come from within need only to turn their heads in a different direction.
We all need some kind of pressure release valve. In the death care industry, part of that release comes from cognitive dissonance, an emphasis on abstraction. It is quite possibly a stagnant industry because, psychologically, it has to be.
Ironically enough for the champions of technology in the death care industry, the ancient practice of cremation is on a steady rise, expected to account for nearly 50% of all dispositions by 2025. This should come as no surprise, as cremation is an efficient process that also opens up the home as a non-traditional space for remembrance over mourning (The cremation chamber should burn at around 1600 degrees).
The strangest thing about a crematorium machine is the noise. It hums reverently, possessing neither the imagined roar of industrial machinery nor the futuristic silence of sophisticated technology. Despite being equipped with an efficient filtration system, the odor is more disturbing for what it lacks: substance, distinction, scent. One has the sensation that the air is saturated with particles. It is a philosophical exercise. How much can you see, how close can you get, and still remain whole?
This differs from the way heat smells—intense heat, vague in nature but totally recognizable in total. Scent and sensation mingle. You smell garbage melting faintly, superheated dust particles, the inside of your own nose, bodies, skin, exhaust, suffocating noxious fumes, a disturbing and ineluctable sweetness. Funeral homes usually smell like plastic, but those flowers are always real.
Bronze ornaments (Marc Yearsley)
There was a dilapidated motel abandoned across from our convention hotel on the strip. The empty pool was filled with escort flyers and sewage. One room had been broken into, strewn with waste and garbage. I visited it on one of the hottest days of my stay, reaching 90 degrees by noon, and it's that dry, oppressive, cruel heat that actually stifles sweat production and cooks your skin. I approached the room, but I could not enter because of an overpowering stench of shit. Even the most odious decomposition has never stopped me from stepping inside a crypt. Sometimes life is much messier than we want it to be.