A Morbid Matter Austin “It’s your funeral,” thee saying goes, but most people won’t think about it, and this is the basis of the highly profitable corpse business. If people would make their own decisions about their funerals before they died, the living could be spared many morbid and costly spectaculars. Playing upon the susceptibilities of the nearest survivors in the time of their emotional prostration, funeral homes can make the most of the worst. On the other hand, the morticians probably get more criticism than they deserve. A lot of people are not content to keep up with the Joneses; they have to keep up with the late Joneses, too. The funeral homes are willing to sell the pomp and take the profit, but sometimes this is what the customer independently wants. In my opinion the best development in this field is the emergence of the local memorial and burial society, the group of citizens who in effebt designate a few of their number to look into the situation and advise them how to proceed modestly and reasonably and then, when the time comes, help them do so. It’s depressing to think about death and burial; it makes the plainest common sense for people to band together and have a few of their number do it for them all. I have not read Jessica Mitford’s book on the corpse business, but recently I came upon an article on it by Patricia Blake in Life Magazine, quoting the Texas Synod of the Southern Presbyterian Church’s condemnation of the “practice of neo-pagan corpse worship.” Rev. Edward D. Robertson, speaking for the synod, said that “Funerals, as now commonly conducted, are not Christian.” ONE ILLUSTRIOUS but unnamed psychiatrist was quoted: “Our culture is basically adolescent. Like so much in our civilizationour literature, movies, TVthe American funeral serves to deny real feelings, in this case grief and pain. What has happened is that many people no longer believe in the religious rituals which, through the ages, have mobilized and released feelings of mourning. The undertakers have moved in to fill the gap, devising new forms to replace the old. In fact, they have established a new type of ‘religious’ ceremonial, but which does not succeed in giving people an outlet for grief. Today’s funeral has the atmosphere of a cocktail party where the minister says a few sugary words, and the ‘beautified’ corpse seems to confirm that death hasn’t really taken place.” The article continued: “A sense of guilt for the harm, imagin 14 The Texas Observer ed or real, done to the deceased in his life-timeor for sins of omissionis the unconscious reason people will spend their last nickel on a funeral. ‘Financial sacrifice,’ adds the above-mentioned psychiatrist, ‘carries out the impulse to suffer and atone which has always been characteristic of rituals for the dead. Europeans today are altogether more mature in their attitude toward death than Americans, and by mature I mean the ability to experience grief and compassion without guilt.’ “People who would prefer dignified, simple inexpensive funerals for their dead have to contend with the obstacles set up by the National Funeral Directors’ Association, whose members do 75% of the funeral business in the U.S. Otherwise fiercely competitive, they are united in their determination to prevent religious and trade union funeral societies and other organizations from helping people get simple funerals.” Obviously people who want simple funerals for themselves and for their dead should inquire whether there is a memorial society in their own city or area. If there isn’t, one can be formed through a church, union, lodge, or other organization, or just among friends. In Austin we have the Austin Memorial and Burial Information Society at 4700 Grover Avenue. It is a member of the Continental Association of Funeral and Memorial Societies, which would surely advise any other likely group that wanted to establish a local society. A law professor, E. Wayne Thode, is the president of the Austin society. It was formed by local Unitarians but is not connected with the church and is open to righted handbook for members asks and answers the right questions about Texas law and local practices at funeral homes and cemeteries and the San Antonio crematorium. The members are invited, but certainly not required to file a form with the society in which they specify how they want to be buried or whether they want to be cremated instead, at approximately what cost, where, with what kind of service, with who in charge, and under what special instructions or injunctions. IGATHER the minimum cost of a funeral in Austin is about $150; perhaps the optimumly inexpensive funeral would come to $300. Under social security there is a maximum burial benefit of $255, but a claim has to be filed by the survivors. In addition, the estate of a veteran who has died may be entitled to benefits up to S250, according to the Austin society’s handbook. A corpse is a corpse. Euphemisms help people get through but do not change the facts. In making your own decisions about these facts, you have to weigh alternatives you can think about only for a little while and perhaps can never talk about. The Austin society’s handbook is written from a modern viewpoint, but with a steady consideration for the undiscussable differences from person to person when these decisions are being made. The society makes its own recommendations clearly, but gently. For instance, the memorial service, held after the body has already been cremated or buried, is preferred to the funeral service, which takes place with the body present in a coffin. “The survivors feel some conscious or subconscious remorse over, some real o r imagined inattention or selfishness in regard to the deceased, and seek to deny it, or make redress, through a lavish expenditure of money, or excessively shown symptoms of grief,” the Austin society’s handbook says. “It is well beforehand to recognize that all money expended on a funeral or grave site or marker is primarily of benefit to the survivors. The person who has died no longer physically exists in this world.” Arguing for the memorial service without the corpse present, the booklet continues: “A service following death is . . . important in that it acknowleges the fact of a transition from a state of life on the part of someone we love and allows acquaintances, friends, and family the opportunity to face this fact of death. A service also helps provide the means for others to show support and concern . . . A husband, or wife, or child who is not ready to accept condolences for the first few days should certainly think of a memorial service as an even more desirable alternative to the often hurried atmosphere surrounding a funeral service.” THE BOOKLET gives information, including cost information, about Austin-area undertakers, cemeteries, and cremation facilities. One is told, plainly, what the law requires, how one must do what, and what decisions must be made at each juncture. One is provided guidance and forms, if desired, on giving one’s corpse to a medical school or one’s eyes to an eye bank. And the laws are explained. For instance, while Texas law does not require that a body be cremated in a casket, such a requirement is usually imposed by the crematorium. Again, as a practical matter it is illegal under Texas law for a mortician to offer lower prices to a memorial society than he charges the public in general. For my part I don’t want to think about this subject any longer than I have to. I am grateful to the Austin society for making the necessary local inquiries and thinking the matter through and then providing me with this quiet, intelligent booklet and the specific opportunity to make the decisions that it makes sense to make and be done with. R.D.
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