Last year I presided at the funeral service of a wonderful member of our Bridge St. UC congregation who had been involved in the funeral industry for six decades. Harry felt that we had a lot in common because he viewed the work he did as a calling. While he had retired as a funeral director and national representative for his company, he still offered his perspective and wisdom to students at funeral colleges.
We agreed that there had been many changes through the years, including the corporate takeover of so many private funeral homes. I have a great deal of respect for the majority of the funeral directors I've worked with, many of whom have been active members of Christian congregations. I've been less than impressed with the big-business approach to the funeral biz because it tends to depersonalize what is a very vulnerable time for families and to be profit-driven to a degree that is less than comforting.
Last night CBC Market Place did a hidden camera investigation of one of these international companies called Arbor Memorial.
Arbor Memorial Inc. has revenues of over $140 million annually and a 10 per cent share of the Canadian market, with branches in every province except Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. It owns and operates 92 funeral homes, 41 cemeteries and 28 crematoria and it's expanding.
The results aren't flattering, which is why the episode is called Death Inc. The "family counsellors" are salespersons whose job is to "up-sell" their products and encourage add-ons which might not be necessary. While this doesn't impress me, there is the bigger question of how we got here in the first place. How did the respectful burial of human remains become such an elaborate industry? I visited a monastery years ago and the monk who picked me up at the train mentioned that one of the elderly brothers had just died. For three days the plain coffin built by a local carpenter sat in the midst of the worship space before he was buried in the simple monastery graveyard.
Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch, one a theologian and the other a funeral director, have written a book called The Good Funeral which thoughtfully examines all aspects of burial. In a time when people in our society are decreasingly connected with faith communities, the discussion about how we take our leave from loved ones is even more important, it seems to me.