Commercialising the alternative death movement

The alternative death movement is a growing and amazing thing. It may have started with a heightened awareness of the commerce of death and an interest in less costly approaches to burial, and progressed to green cemeteries and environmentally conscious death, but it’s also taking on a wider scope. It’s encouraging consumers to empower themselves, to care for their own dead, to choose to die at home instead of in hospital settings, to hold visitations and wakes at home, to create their own ceremonies for mourning and grief and tackling the troubling issues of being alive, and then not being alive.

Almost inevitably, though, it’s being commercialised, because everything good hits ruin when it collides with capitalism. This frustrating turn of affairs really defeats the entire point of the movement (see also the commercialisation of ‘green living,’ which encourages people to express their interest in and concern for the environment by buying more unnecessary objects). The goal of alternative death is to move beyond commercial approaches to arrive at an individually tailored response to a death, one reflecting the desires of the dead and dying as well as those of family and friends.

I love the work of morticians and alternative death leaders who are really facilitating a conversation about death and dying, and encouraging members of the public to face mortality. One of the most important aspects of their work is pushing discussions about what people want in death before they die, and hopefully well in advance of death, while these conversations feel less loaded and intense — when people are actively dying, that’s the time to revisit and go over previously made plans. Of working with people to help them achieve the deaths they want. For one person that might be hanging out in a bed in the front room with visitors coming by to say hello before peacefully dying at home and being laid out in a simple coffin, carried to the cemetery or crematory by friends.

For another, it might be a more private death with close family only. Hospice is changing in response to these issues, working with the dead and dying to meet their needs and keep them as comfortable as possible at the end of days. These are all amazing and important things, as is the push to change restrictive legislation on disposition; why not compost bodies, for example? Dead bodies aren’t dangerous, except in rare situations, where they may need to be handled with care for a set period of time (see Ebola, for example).

The alternative death movement is about turning away from capitalist and commercialised ways of living, exploring new ways of facing grief. But to the funeral industry, it poses an obvious problem: There’s nothing to sell to consumers. There’s no profit to be made. No products to create, no things to upsell, nothing to help them maintain an actually relatively new industry. The funeral industry is clinging to its stranglehold on death.

In the long term, as the alternative death movement gets more popular, I strongly suspect the funeral industry will lobby for more restrictions. Many states, like California for example, have surprisingly minimal legislative limitations on handling the dead. In large part, this is because it hasn’t come up that often. For deaths in California, it’s necessary to obtain a death certificate and receive a certificate of disposition. While certain methods for handling bodies are not legal, for a variety of reasons, there’s nothing actually barring you from getting a death certificate and, say, proceeding to direct cremation (you can transport a body in your car!).

The state doesn’t care, although individual facilities do, because they want their cut of the proceeds. Some facilities refuse to conduct burials without vaults and other costly things, for instance, or insist that people go through a given mortuary. A variety of practices surround conventional disposition and they can be dizzying for people who are unaccustomed to dealing with them — one reason the alternative death movement is concerned with having conversations about these issues before death, and one reason education and outreach is an important part of its mission, to ensure that people are empowered with the tools they need to make the choices they want to make.

But the funeral industry is also sniffing and recognising the winds of change. No matter what happens next, the cat is out of the bag. A growing interest in handling deaths personally is not going to go away, and that means the industry needs to adapt. Which is why you’re starting to see things like fancy green cemeteries offering expensive services to people who want to be environmentally forwardthinking. These tactics commercialise something that is supposed to be about turning away from commercialisation, and they are a troubling trend.

Recently, I noticed a concept proposal for ‘burial pods,’ biodegradeable pods that the deceased could be put into in order to be lowered into a prepared grave, with a tree planted on top. They ‘feed the trees,’ we are promised. My question in response was ‘why can’t we just bury people directly, though?’ Whether we bury people naturally by simply placing them in the ground, or wrapped in a thin shroud, it would accomplish the same goal of providing nutrition to a tree planted overhead. We don’t need special and potentially expensive ‘pods’ for such things. These proposals aren’t about facilitating a desire to handle the dead more differently, but about turning such desires into a capitalist commodity.

Wherever you go in an attempt to escape it, capitalism and commodification will follow you. We’ve faced the high cost of dying — and now the industry is trying to replicate that cost all over again in the movement that defiantly arose to counter it.

Image: Burke & O’Leary, Sean Birmingham, Flickr