Physically speaking, death is not creepy but routine. Life leaves the body quietly. The body will decompose, but not to the point where you need to worry about odor for a day or two, a period that can be stretched, for instance, by refrigerating the body or placing it on dry ice. Certainly, the person we knew ceasing to exist is frightening to some. But is it more frightening than entrusting your husband’s body to strangers, so that the next time you see him he is embalmed and wearing makeup? Still, it is understandable to want after-death care out of sight, to think it will hurt less if someone else deals with it.
This is where the traditional funeral industry steps in, offering to take the burden off your hands in your time of need, with embalming (not required by state law), metal caskets, burial vaults (to protect the buried casket from the weight of the earth), a hearse, and a motorcade. The average price as of 2009, not including a burial plot: $7,755.
There are two reasons for the elaborate send-off: to make money for the industry, and to make the living feel they have shown Mom, via pomp and product, how much they love her. Whether this makes anyone feel any better is up for debate. A growing number of people feel it does not. Some hire death-midwives, who stay with families during the dying process and help take care of the body, or choose “green cemeteries” with conservation easements that ensure the land will remain undeveloped. To some, a fancy send-off isn’t an expensive casket; it’s a rocket, shooting their cremains into space.
The funeral industry is well aware of the trends, toward cremation (less than 10 percent nationally in 1980, more than 40 percent today), for forgoing embalming (what, some might ask, are we preserving the body for?), for choosing rocks or trees as memorial markers. Profits in the industry have been in decline since 2007, as people choose to “celebrate a life” in more modest ways.
To stay competitive, funeral homes are not so much adding “green” choices as new bars to the same tune: memorial videos during a service have become commonplace; there’s the “interactive” Agean Healing Tree white marble vault cover, from which mourners can pluck a coin-shaped “memory ring” (“to attach to a keychain or simply keep in their pocket”).
Fournier also offers options, foremost among them an approach that recalls how we’ve mourned from time immemorial. She encourages clients to understand that they can wash and dress bodies for disposition (she will assist); bury bodies in wood boxes or other biodegradable containers (green burial); inter bodies or cremains on property they own; and act as their own funeral director. Her advocacy of natural burial has earned her the nickname “the Green Reaper,” a moniker she received during the Toshiba ad campaign “Boring vs. Normal,” a 2009 series of short-form videos wherein residents of the Oregon and Illinois towns competed for Internet celebrity.
The less-is-more approach is a good fit for Oregon, the first of the only three US states, so far, to pass legislation allowing physician-assisted suicide for some terminally ill patients, and where nearly 70 percent of those who died in 2011 were cremated. Oregonians want death their way. They also prefer to go gently instead of jamming the earth with embalming solvents (including formaldehyde, a known carcinogen) and caskets that incorporate as much metal and upholstery as a car.
“People find out the painful truth later, that it didn’t really help them,” says Fournier of the sometimes five-figure packages she once sold as an employee of several large funeral chains. “What I learned at corporations was it was about the merchandise, the upselling.” Comfort, she was told, was about providing the opportunity to grieve via ever more expensive packages of services. “It just felt horrible, especially when someone came in with a teenage son that died, and they couldn’t afford this! And they couldn’t bury him until they could pay every penny, and I thought, my God, if I ever had a place, I would do payment plans, I would give stuff away.”