Anonymous funeral director explains the big con behind the industry, coffins, and embalming


GOOD magazine created a great little video on the business of death:

Thanks for the reminder.

I’ll make a checklist of specific procedures and expenses to follow when some of my relatives or I die.

[Just because we’re bereaved doesn’t make us saps!][1]


Maybe, maybe not. Someone who claims to be a funeral director is pretty key here. Interestingly enough I know a few funeral directors and none of them use the term “mutilation” for embalming, might be that this particular poster has an axe to grind or whatever. Also not entirely sure how the phase “big con” applies here but thats just the tabloid headline nature of Boing Boing.

Actually, this is pretty much stuff I’d heard before. Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (first published in 1963) makes many of the same claims which were still true when I read the book in 1993 and I wouldn’t be surprised that they’re still true now.


Where I live, the funeral homes lobby tried to get a law passed that would have forbidden people from keeping their deceased ones’s ahses. Their spokesperson’s explainations as to why we needed such a law were ridiculous. Things like “people are doing whatever they want with their ashes and it’s absolute chaos!”

Of course, they wanted to make sure that every single sucker out there would be forced to rent a space for the urn.

Also, On Death and Dying, 1969. Back then, a lot of unnecessary stuff was required by law, but I think that’s changed. I guess it’s also a matter of state and local law.

1 Like

Heck, forget 1969, let’s talk 1883.

Mark Twain writes about the funeral trade and its avarice in Life On The Mississippi.

Then, with a confidential wink, a dropping of the voice, and an
impressive laying of his hand on my arm; ‘Look here; there’s one thing
in this world which isn’t ever cheap. That’s a coffin. There’s one
thing in this world which a person don’t ever try to jew you down on.
That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this world which a person don’t
say—“I’ll look around a little, and if I find I can’t do better I’ll
come back and take it.” That’s a coffin. There’s one thing in this
world which a person won’t take in pine if he can go walnut; and won’t
take in walnut if he can go mahogany; and won’t take in mahogany if he
can go an iron casket with silver door-plate and bronze handles.
That’s a coffin. And there’s one thing in this world which you don’t
have to worry around after a person to get him to pay for. And that’s
a coffin. Undertaking?—why it’s the dead-surest business in
Christendom, and the nobbiest.’

'Well, in ordinary times, a person dies, and we lay him up in ice; one
day two days, maybe three, to wait for friends to come. Takes a lot of
it—melts fast. We charge jewelry rates for that ice, and war-prices
for attendance. Well, don’t you know, when there’s an epidemic, they
rush 'em to the cemetery the minute the breath’s out. No market for
ice in an epidemic. Same with Embamming. You take a family that’s able
to embam, and you’ve got a soft thing. You can mention sixteen
different ways to do it—though there ain’t only one or two ways, when
you come down to the bottom facts of it—and they’ll take the
highest-priced way, every time. It’s human nature—human nature in
grief. It don’t reason, you see. Time being, it don’t care a dam. All
it wants is physical immortality for deceased, and they’re willing to
pay for it. All you’ve got to do is to just be ca’m and stack it
up—they’ll stand the racket. Why, man, you can take a defunct that you
couldn’t give away; and get your embamming traps around you and go to
work; and in a couple of hours he is worth a cool six hundred—that’s
what he’s worth. There ain’t anything equal to it but trading rats for
di’monds in time of famine. Well, don’t you see, when there’s an
epidemic, people don’t wait to embam. No, indeed they don’t; and it
hurts the business like hell-th, as we say—hurts it like hell-th,
health, see?—Our little joke in the trade.


I want to do that pressure cooker with lye thing that was on here a while back (like a year maybe, to lazy to search now). But instead of pulverizing my left over bones I want to will my skull to my children… Creepy and AWESOME.


I remember being really shocked at the level of up-sell pressure my father and uncles and I got when my Grammy died. I don’t know that it’s, like, this big secret (except in the sense that there’s probably only once or twice in your life that you end up experiencing it, so it can feel like a hidden surprise), but it’s definitely sketchy. Trying to talk sobbing people into fancier pillows for their dead bodies must be a job that’s either soul-sucking in the extreme or appealing to assholes, or both.


Also not entirely sure how the phase “big con” applies here but thats just the tabloid headline nature of Boing Boing.

Well it’s pretty “big” because everybody dies.


I find it ironic that the character says, “There’s one thing in this world which a person don’t ever try to jew you down on. That’s a coffin.” Jews traditionally are buried in the cheapest pine boxes; I never thought it was about being cheap so much as recognizing that life is over and there is no point in glorifying a dead body. I actually love the Jewish funeral practices for this reason that it’s kind of a standard, very plain funeral and so it prevents you from having to make decisions during your grief. I’m sure there are many who find a way to be extravagant nonetheless, but to me it is very cool to just have it be so prescribed what is supposed to happen.


I’ve talked with mortician and they were talking about cremation and how they don’t do it in house. They farm it out for around $150 but charged close to $1,500 for the service and basic Urn.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I read it 12 years ago in college, and I’m confident that eventually that class will pay for itself by introducing me to that book.

1 Like

While I’m sure this has become more common due to the corporate consolidation of family funeral homes, not all funeral directors are like that. I come from a funeral home family and they never pulled any of that shit. They wouldn’t try to sell a poor person an expebsive casket. we had quite a few pine boxes over the years. They would give you the ashes in the plastic box from the crematorium. Don’t want a hearse and instead are going to chain the casket to the back of a flat bed truck with kegs of beer for his biker buddies? No problem. Some funeral directors do actually care and having to comfort greiving families day in and day out is a difficult job that wears on you.


Yeah, I experienced this when my mother died. The upselling by the people at the funeral home disgusted me. I tried to gently talk to my father about all of this, but it didn’t work. I know my mothers wish was (at different times) for donation to science or cremation, but my father insisted on a burial. The upscale interiors she will rot in, and the ‘guaranteed 100 year sealed’ sarcophagus with the decorative pink top really disturbed me.
How are you going to collect on the guaranteed sealed sarcophagus unless the whole thing collapses and leaves a sinkhole anyway?
And what is the point of sealing someone away from decomposition, and putting yourself in debt to do it, too.

Thankfully, my dad and one of my uncles are both skeptical, sarcastic guys who have no problem dealing with grief through the liberal application of side-eye and smart-ass remarks. They left us alone about the time we started snickering about the sports-team themed caskets.


American funerals need more strippers.

1 Like