September 1, 2023 | View PDF
Have you ever thought about what goes on in the funeral industry? Have you ever wondered why just about every product and service related to a funeral is grossly overpriced—with a price that is often not even disclosed until after the family is stuck with paying it? Welcome to America's most extreme price gouging—gouging that is MANDATED BY LAW.
In our early days, families took care of their own according to their own traditions and religious beliefs. Procedures varied widely. Some might seem repugnant to others with different beliefs. But there were never any problems.
American Indians usually buried their dead in shallow graves about three feet deep, since digging deeper with shells and flat stones was a great deal of work. Chiefs and others of status were buried with grave goods—jewelry, utensils, and weapons for their afterlives. Some of the Midwestern tribes placed their corpses onto scaffolds so eagles and vultures could clean the flesh from the bones, which they later buried. They rarely, if ever, marked their graves.
Americans of European descent buried their dead in wooden boxes about five to six feet deep, usually in church cemeteries or their own family cemeteries. Headstones ranged anywhere from elaborate stone sculptures to simple natural rocks or crude wooden crosses.
Funerals of both natives and Europeans could range from elaborate ceremonies to simple burials. Up until the end of the War for Southern Independence in 1865, our local, state, and federal governments did not interfere or dictate how families took care of their deceased. They left them strictly alone, and everybody was happy with their own traditions.
But then, after John Wilkes Booth committed his dirty deed, government officials arranged a “grand response” to mourn Lincoln's death. They embalmed his body, draped it in black, and placed it onto a train that ran all over the northern states, stopping at cities and towns so thousands of people could view it.
This display of extravagance prompted greedy hucksters to collude with state authorities to impose restrictive licensure laws and concoct a lucrative oligarchy to regulate and limit their competition by law. Over the last century and a half, they have created a ghoulish empire to milk every nickel and dime they can from family estates. In essence, simple, inexpensive family burials have been outlawed.
Today, the licensed funeral directors' cartels have covered every base—who could own and operate a funeral home, conduct memorial services, embalm a corpse, perform cremations, create and sell tombstones, own and operate a hearse, build and sell caskets and vaults, own and operate a cemetery, and provide flowers and a multitude of add-ons. Today, a traditional funeral costs over $7000.
At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Katrina Spade noted that urban cemeteries consume a great deal of valuable land. They also require concrete or steel vaults and caskets of expensive hardwoods. She said, “By one estimate, an average cemetery contains enough furniture-grade wood to build 40 homes.” And of course, the bodies are required to be embalmed with toxic formaldehyde.
Spade proposed a very simple and efficient means of corpse disposal—composting. “It occurred to me that if you can compost a cow, you can compost a human... I kept working at the idea because I kept finding more and more people who said, ‘I would do that.’”
Farmers have done it for centuries to dispose of dead animals. In terms of simplicity and low cost, it might be the ultimate disposal method—obviously less costly than burials, and even less expensive and more efficient than cremation, which requires expensive equipment and consumes massive amounts of fuel.
Spade began a nonprofit to raise money for her idea, but an e-mail from “a law professor” claimed that there was an “incredible variety of laws” that would not allow it—that human composting was flatly illegal in every state. Legal bureaucracies hammered her for years while she struggled for a rational change. She had run into a massive wall imposed by the funeral cartels. They had no sympathy for giving up their cash cows just to allow families to save thousands of dollars.
Younger families are desperate for simpler, less expensive funerals, like the ones we had prior to Lincoln's. In those days, a family would wash and dress the body and keep it at home for a few days while the family and friends visited. There was no embalming, and the odor of decay was minimal if it even existed. The family placed the body in a simple, often crude and home made wooden casket, and buried it anywhere from a church cemetery to a back yard. There were NO government officials meddling with anything.
Today, arbitrary laws can be devastating. In New Jersey, the state’s headstone-maker association twisted the arms of state legislators, claiming that churches had “an unfair advantage” in selling headstones. The legislators obliged, making church sales illegal.
Rules like this stifle competition and allow the legally privileged funeral industries to charge whatever they wish—for legally mandated products and services. To add insult to injury, families are obliged to suddenly deal with them in times of grief, when they are most vulnerable.
The Federal Trade Commission requires that funeral homes provide price lists, but many of them withold them until seriously pressured. Some have charged higher than listed prices and even threatened to withhold remains until the family paid up.
Of course, we do have some honest undertakers who would like to bring their fees down to reasonable levels. But because the system is already structured around the ripoff prices, the honest ones are afraid to do much discounting, lest they become ostracized by their peers and even have their licenses revoked.
Modern science has proven it unnecessary to enbalm a person after death to prevent spreading diseases. Tanya Marsh, a law professor at Wake Forest University, said, “If we did away with embalming as a requirement for licensure and regulations, you would open up the industry to a lot of people who want to help grieving people.”
The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit organization that litigates funeral law cases. Its senior attorney, Jeff Rowe, stated, “Funerals are unreasonably expensive... Our laws have created [a] notion of a bells-and-whistles hearse going down the street followed by a hundred cars going to the cemetery, with a casket and brass handles. Because if you loved your dad, you really want to get the nice casket.”
Spade stated, “In some areas, people have the option of 'natural burial,' where a body is often shrouded in cloth and buried on forested land. It’s an approach that has grown in popularity in recent years and can often be done to comply with funeral and cemetery laws....” Embalming, vaults, caskets, and other expensive items are avoided. But this option is only available in rural locations.
Spade emphasizes that human composting requires little energy and emits very little waste. The body is “placed in a vessel and surrounded by organic materials like sawdust and straw. Like vegetable compost, a mix of oxygen, heat and microbes help the body break down over the course of four to six weeks. What’s left is compost, bones and medical devices, which are removed. The bones are transported to a special machine that breaks them into small fragments, which are then composted.”
Spade said that convincing state legislatures to allow it “has been arduous.” But in 2015, Marsh has chipped in by informing her funeral law students about human composting procedures. Her students are researching all 50 state laws and examining what changes are needed.
Spade hired lobbyists and courted lawmakers in Washington state, who have already passed her proposal. New York passed it “overwhelmingly” just this year (2023). She is now working in Oregon, Vermont, and Colorado.
Many funeral directors oppose it, just like they oppose other permissive reforms. They claim that it limits their ability “to become involved in the business.”
Another cremation alternative is alkaline hydrolysis, the use of lye to dissolve a human body. The process is also much less expensive and consumes far less energy.
Death doulas are an option for families to avoid the often heavy costs of funeral parlors and licensed directors. They care for the dead at home, and the families hold their services there—like families did prior to 1865.
Spade has founded a company called Recompose. So far this year (2023), it has composted over 100 people.
The bottom line: “Much of the dysfunction in the funeral industry is the result of occupational licensing—the rules that require people to obtain licenses to perform work— gone awry. The litany of licensing requirements guiding everyone from funeral directors to hairdressers could be greatly reduced, or even eliminated. They keep entrepreneurs from starting businesses in the funeral space.”
Severns, Maggie, Abraham Lincoln’s other legacy: An obsession with open caskets and America’s lifelessless death industry, Grid News, December 28, 2022.