Unhooking Your Death from the Consumer Culture

*** Time for this post?  Reading… 9 minutes. Viewing… 4 minutes. Doing something to unhook yourself…up to you.

We live in a time when dying has been sanitized and commercialized—like most of our life experiences. In our consumer culture, commercial interests have taken over all the difficult things we used to do ourselves when someone died. In return, we get to detach from the experience and feel less discomfort.

That wasn’t always the case. Here’s a recollection shared by Nora, a reader who is now 90 years old.

My first direct experience [with death] was probably around the age of 5 or 6. In those days people still often dealt with the death of a family member at home, and my mother was often called on to help with washing of the body. In this particular instance a baby had died and I accompanied her to the farm where the family lived. They were friends. I watched as the baby was washed and placed in a small wooden box, then taken out and buried on the property. I didn’t see the burial, but can’t recall why. I only remember that I wasn’t scared and thought it was completely natural.

That had changed by the time the Baby Boomers were growing up in the 1950s and 60s. By then, the funeral industry was in full swing. Death was outsourced and we didn’t learn, as Nora did, that it is completely natural and not scary. In the absence of such experience, we’ve become fearful of the unknown and susceptible to the death phobia that pervades the culture around us.

Death phobia serves commercial interests…

Here are just a couple of ways that come to mind:

  • Death phobia causes us to take measures beyond all reason to stay alive or keep a dying family member alive. This keeps hospitals, cancer clinics, nursing homes, pharmaceutical companies, and high-tech medical manufacturers in business. I find it interesting that more and more of the people working in these places are speaking out—saying that we’ve got it all wrong, that we need to view death differently, to see it as a natural process rather than a medical condition. Professor Ken Hillman is one of the front-line people who is speaking out. He’s an Australian intensive care physician who has seen a lot of people near the end of life. In his view, dying in the elderly is being hijacked. People end up in and out of hospital to treat failing organs or a broken bone caused by a fall. What the system does not recognize is that frailty is a natural condition that precedes death, and the elderly should be assessed in terms of frailty, not malfunctioning body systems. You won’t want to miss the TED Talk of this sensible and compassionate man. His recent book is A Good Life to the End.
  • Death phobia creates the climate where funeral homes are able to profit substantially from the susceptibility of grieving people. They know to manipulate us into spending far beyond our original intention—such as paying $10,000 for a casket that goes directly into a crematory furnace, or paying for unnecessary embalming of a body that will be cremated. If you think my attitude is too cynical, watch this undercover investigation by Canada’s CBC Marketplace.

The good news is…

There is movement back to sanity and we, the people, are no longer allowing the consumer culture and economic system to completely co-opt our experience of death.

Here is a bit of what’s going on…

    1. Low-cost funerals are available if you do some basic consumer research. It’s easy with the internet to do some initial screening—starting with a search for “low-cost funerals” followed by your city name. When you find funeral providers that offer the level of service you want at a reasonable price, check their reliability. Read the testimonials on their website (and wonder why they don’t have any if they don’t). Check out the company at the Better Business Bureau. There you’ll discover how long they’ve been in business, their BBB rating from F to A+, and what customers have said about their experience with that company. After this pre-screening, call companies that still interest you and do a telephone interview. By then you’ll have enough information to make your selection. In my case, I selected a low-cost provider and got what I wanted for $1600. A full-service funeral home, with a chapel and reception area I wouldn’t be using, gave me a quote of $4100 for exactly the same services (simple cremation). It takes some time up front, but the reward is that you save thousands of dollars by not leaving it to your family to make a last-minute decision after you’ve died.
    2. Memorial societies and cooperatives are not-fo-profit organizations made up of members who have joined together to obtain dignity, simplicity and economy in funeral arrangements. Instead of directly offering funeral services, they negotiate with existing funeral homes to obtain reduced rates for their members. You pay a modest fee to join, and then make your arrangements with one of the specified funeral homes. The selected providers have funeral homes that offer a full range of services including large chapels, reception rooms, and on-site parking. For some people, this is an advantage over low-cost funeral providers, which usually do not have these facilities and cater to people who have their own locations (home or religious building) for the service and reception.
    3. People are befriending death so they are more comfortable with planning for its arrival instead of avoiding thinking about it.
    4. People are talking about death over dinner across the world. Between 2013 and 2016, more than 100,000 death-over-dinners were held in 30 countries. Imagine that!
    5. Do-it-yourself is back. Home funerals are becoming “a thing” with plenty of good help to make it happen. And look what’s going on in New Zealand…

No passive consumerism for them…

I love how they are taking charge! And other people must too, because there are now coffin clubs throughout New Zealand, in the UK, and in Tasmania.

The Coffin Club was started in 2010 by Katie Williams, a former palliative care nurse, to personalize funerals and drastically reduce cost.  But, she says, the biggest attraction of the Coffin Club movement is companionship. Watch this short video and don’t miss the “chook-in-the-box” around the 4-minute mark.

Your thoughts?

So…has this inspired you in any way—even a small one—to see how you can unhook your death from the dictates of the consumer culture? I’d love to hear…

Make Friends With Reality

*** Time for this post?  Reading…a minute. Viewing…15 minutes. 

Last week I wrote about how we use euphemisms to replace the word “death” because we consider it a harsh and ugly reality.

What if we did as philosopher-comic Emily Levine did. When faced with a diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, she looked for ways to make sense of life, living, dying, and death.

A television writer, producer, and filmmaker, Emily Levine spent her life tearing apart classics and physics and pop culture, and then, in trickster fashion, putting them together in ways that got us thinking differently. “Her goal was to short-circuit your mind, to shake you out of your silly old and/or thinking with a little bit of and/and.” Here is her view of death, after she had befriended it:

’I’ am just a collection of particles that is arranged into this pattern, then will decompose and be available, all of its constituent parts, to nature, to reorganize into another pattern. To me, that is so exciting, and it makes me even more grateful to be part of that process.


This talk was posted in April 2018. Emily Levine died on February 3, 2019. Emily’s Universe carries on.

Regaining Perspective

I know I’m getting old when I find myself saying, “What on earth is this world coming to?!!” It’s a fair bet that I’m not alone in this.

It’s easy to get lost in the heaviness of that perspective. In those moments, I find a breath of fresh air in Jeanne Robertson. Today I’d like to share her with you…

Jeanne Robertson is an American humorist, motivational speaker, and a former Miss North Carolina and physical education teacher. You can hear many more of these short clips on her YouTube Channel. Here are a few more samples of what you’ll find there.