“We’ve mastered weddings—but the funeral needs a lot of work”: Inside the new death industry

The $20-billion-dollar death industry is ripe for disruption—and not of the zombie kind.

A typical funeral service today is remarkably similar to one from 50 years ago. A funeral home will display the embalmed body, perhaps in an open casket, while a religious leader who may not have known the deceased reads a few prayers. It’s impersonal, stilted, and, at an average of $8,000 a funeral, expensive.

For the non-religious, non-traditional, and non-boring, this shouldn’t be the only way to commemorate a life. In an age of abundant choice and personalized everything, why in heaven’s name hasn’t the funeral followed suit? In the words of Amy Cunningham, a lecturer and in-demand funeral director in the New York City area, “We’ve mastered the wedding—but the funeral needs a lot of work.”

The traditional funeral, as we know it today, is a relatively young cultural practice. In the 19th century and before, American families hosted funerals in their homes and cared for their deceased loved one’s body themselves. But with the Civil War came the process of embalming, which preserves human remains in a lifelike form and allowed soldiers’ corpses to be shipped home for burial. When this practice was brought off the battlefield and into cities, death care became a professional pursuit.

By the 1920s, more and more people lived in small urban apartments and died in hospitals. As a result, the funeral home started to become a more popular option for paying respects to the dead. By the 1960s, two-thirds of all deaths were occurring in hospitals instead of at home, and the death-care process had become almost entirely outsourced to professionals, too.

It took 50 years for the next surge of developments to surface. The first clear-cut sign of change came in 2015, when the rate of cremation, which was an extremely unpopular option in the US only a few decades ago, surpassed that of burial for the first time. Then there are green burials, which are becoming particularly popular among baby boomers. There are about 100 green cemeteries in the US, and according to a 2015 survey by the Green Burial Council, 72% of those cemeteries have reported increased demand since going green.

 “I want to be wrapped in a shroud like a little burrito. They can call it a Chipotle funeral.” Between embalming, caskets, and headstones, the traditional funeral is rather toxic to the environment. Jay Castaño told The Washington Post that he is planning a green burial for ecological reasons, sure—but mostly because he wants his funeral to be a simple (and cheap) affair, no fancy caskets necessary: “I want to be wrapped in a shroud like a little burrito. They can call it a Chipotle funeral. They can wrap me up and throw me there and cover me up with some grass and soil.”

The popularity of home funerals is also on the rise. As chronicled by Libby Copeland for The New Republic, a small group of women known as death doulas or death midwives are on the rise in the US. Copeland estimates there are between 100 and 200 of these women, who help families plan ahead so they can hold funerals in their homes. “They are helping the bereaved take back some of the control, respect, and intimacy they believe has disappeared from the modern approach to death,” Copeland says.

According to Tim Howell, communications volunteer at the National Home Funeral Alliance, doulas fill a need for customers who have been traditionally underserved by the largely white, male funeral industry—particularly people of color and those in the LGBTQ community. While Howell cautions that some doulas may lack the credentials of funeral directors (who must comply with more rigorous certification processes), he believes their work is invaluable for both the individual griever and our society as a whole.

“Most of the people involved in my organization and the alternative funeral movement believe that being more physically present is a more natural state for people—that we’re wired to deal with it that way,” he says. “The more you’re pretending it’s not happening, the harder it is to come to terms. When you are physically holding the body of your loved one, washing it, dressing it, preparing it … there’s a level of intimacy and emotional release that people don’t know they miss until they’re in that moment.”

This could not be more different than the traditional funeral, in which the body is taken away from families and treated by professionals behind closed doors. In this way, home funerals point to a way the death-care industry can shed its culture of secrecy and embrace an open, death-positive approach.

While most of us don’t want to know the ins and outs of how grandma’s body was embalmed, we do want to understand what exactly we’re paying for when we shell out $8,000 for a funeral. NPR’s investigative team found that, despite a federal regulation known as the Funeral Rule, one in four funeral homes does not disclose its prices, online or in person. In fact, many homes don’t even have websites to list prices on. As Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, told NPR, “The consumer stands firmly in 1951, because that seems to be the technological level and the transparency level that the majority of American funeral homes are stuck at.”

Proponents of home funerals are just one subset of a larger trend of folk who are keen to learn more about death and dying, break the taboo, and bring discussion of death into their daily lives. Most notably, there is the “death café” movement. These are gatherings in cities across the globe, from Seoul to Capetown, where people get together for tea, dessert, and a free-ranging conversation on death and dying. Since 2011, there have been over 4,000 death cafés held in 47 countries. In 2011, Caitlin Doughty, a mortician in Los Angeles, founded the Order of the Good Death, an organization that explores “ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” In 2015, a Silicon Valley startup called Parting.com—kind of like Yelp for funeral homes—was founded by three young techies who were trying to demystify the process of finding a funeral home. Moreover, in the last five years, death and mourning have been the subjects of multiple exhibits, TED Talks, design competitions, and media—like the web site Modern Loss and the podcast Death, Sex, & Money.

The funeral industry may have assumed it was safe from the whims of supply and demand; everyone dies, after all. But modern consumers are educating themselves and demanding more. If the funeral industry is to survive the 21st century, it will need to shed its old ways and begin to participate in open, frank discussions around what we truly want out of life—and death.

Follow Vanessa on Twitter at @vmquirk. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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