Can you dig it?

Most of us don't like thinking about funerals — which is why so many of us get badly ripped off. Naturally, I have taken precautions against this; my servants have strict instructions that my remains are to be scattered, but not cremated, to inflict the maximum disgust on those still living. Hey, if I can't be at the party, why should anyone else have a good time?

However, there are people who leave behind others who love them, something letters to Metro Times indicate I won't have to worry much about. But what seriously offends me is that so many funeral directors and funeral homes capitalize on the grief of vulnerable people. I have recently been at a number of funeral services where the survivors had little or no money but had been done out of thousands.

In one case, the widow of a poor man who liked to fish had bought, or been persuaded to buy, a screamingly expensive casket with elaborate figurines of bass on all four corners. The ceramic fishes and the cosmeticized corpse were seen by people for precisely a day, and are now sitting in muddy water 6 feet down in the cement vault into which the casket was put. (Regardless of what they tell you, they leak.)

Jessica Mitford wrote about the rip-off funeral industry in the 1960s, and I did the same in this space in 1998, as my brilliant correspondent Any Salyer reminded me recently. To my enormous surprise, however, these abuses didn't instantly stop the moment I wrote about them.

Since then, the new rage has been putting mementos in caskets; last year, the literally penniless daughter of an elderly lady I knew paid several hundred dollars to put a clunky statuette of the Virgin Mary in the box with the dead flesh. Many other caskets now have "memento drawers," so you can take stuff with you, presumably not for show-and-tell. (Playing cards, a mortician told me, are the most popular item. I think I'd take an ice-making machine, for obvious reasons.)

These days, the $10,000 funeral isn't at all unusual. The good news is that there is a group of people trying to do something about this, the Funeral Consumers Alliance (, whose local affiliate is the Funeral Consumers Information Society of Greater Detroit.

The bad news is that the local chapter, which has been around since 1961, isn't better known. I got to know them after I was honored to speak to their annual meeting a couple months ago. Especially impressive was their current president, Carter Stevenson, a dignified man who works for the city of Detroit. He emphasized that the right to choose how you check out is just one more civil right, one that is being threatened by the giant corporations that own most funeral homes and cemeteries today.

"This is not just about cost, but dignity," he said. "You see, the right to choose final rites is being imperiled, and our thoughts and activity will determine whether this right of choice is a legacy," he said.

In the society's monthly newsletter, he noted that we baby boomers "have witnessed much, we have ignored much and we have changed much," but, he added, we need to keep fighting.

The newsletter, and other information about the group, is online at, and you can call them at 313-886-0998.

When I was taking questions, an energetic (I would say attractive, but this is no longer politically permitted) young member named Wendy Lyons asked me how she could get publicity for her particular cause, which was promoting Do-It-Yourself (DIY) funerals. That's as in, you drag Daddy out to the woods in a homemade coffin and dig a hole.

My first thought: ohmigod, a whack job. I told her diplomatically that most people would rather pay for a $10,000 funeral than bury their relatives themselves. Frankly, I still think that is true.

But I have since gotten to know Wendy, and she is anything but nuts. She got interested in the funeral consumers movement, and then in the do-it yourself movement, through a course she was taking at Oakland University. Technically, Michigan is one of only seven states where DIY funerals are still illegal, thanks to the power of the morticians lobby.

You can, however, pretty much do it all yourself if you get a sympathetic funeral director to sign the paperwork for you. Wendy Lyons may be able to hook you up with one of those. Lyons, who is in a training program to learn how to preside over such undertakings, will also be happy to come and give your group a talk about DIY funerals.

She also shows a, well, interesting video on the practice called A Family Undertaking, which was produced for public television, and shows a variety of families in a variety of scenarios. It begins with some bizarre folks apparently conducting a clandestine funeral in the middle of the night. ("Have to get Pa in the ground; he's leaking fluids," one co-conspirator says.) Later, however, we see a thoroughly admirable South Dakota ranching family who order caskets online and take care of themselves in a way old Ben Cartwright would have been proud to see. Some parts are not for the squeamish, but then neither is life in America under the criminals now in the White House.

Actually, the most repellent thing in the video is the part that shows what happens to a body in a conventional funeral home, which is enough to make you want to drag Mama out to the swamp for the alligators instead.

The do-it-yourselfers occasionally are a bit over-the-top. Nobody sane should really think about burying Patty in the flower bed in Pleasant Ridge, even if local ordinances permitted that. "You might want to consider that this could affect the resale value of your home," one DIYer told me via e-mail. "Of course, bones can always be dug up and moved." This could present a persistent problem for short-term renters.

This isn't for everyone. I'm not ready to join, unless I can start with Dick Cheney, and don't have to wait till he's room temperature. But what we do with our dead now isn't economical, sane or environmentally friendly; think of all the embalming fluid we are placing in the ground.

Incidentally, not all funeral directors are rapacious greedheads. The Purse Funeral Home in Adrian, not far from Toledo, is operated by a considerate family that tries to give folks a decent and affordable send-off. Naturally, their competitors are trying to bury them, and have filed complaints against them for selling inexpensive caskets online and for — horrors — offering cheaper funerals than their competitors.

How can they be in trouble for that?

Well, the Michigan State Board of Examiners in Mortuary Science consists of funeral home owners. If you die near Adrian, you might protect your conscience and your purse by going to see Purse.


Required reading: Want to read one book on what is really happening in politics today, and understand the real reason we are in Iraq? Get a copy of American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips (Viking, $26.95), a book showing why borrowed money, oil, right-wing religious nuts and the Bush administration are destroying this country. This book is especially credible because historian and political analyst Phillips is a Republican who was once a strategist for Richard Nixon.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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