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Worst Kept Secrets › weddings and funerals
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weddings and funerals

So, an article from Slate popped up in my Google Reader - What’s the Greenest Way to Dispose of My Dead Body - which made a nice companion to the article I read a few days ago about Tibetan sky burials. From Slate, I wound up at the eHow article for How to Donate Your Body to Science, which led to some cursory internet investigation about how much control you have over how your mortal remains are used (answer: not much). I think I’m a pretty enlightened person when it comes such things, and overall I think it’s is an admirable and altruistic thing to do, but nevertheless, there are a few things that I’m admittedly squeamish about (check the section, “What is Alloderm?”). Still, though, overall, good things come from it, with a slight risk of ending up spending eternity in someone’s underpants. But moving in a general, meandering fashion toward my point - somehow all the clicking around landed me at a funeral planning website.

DISCLAIMER: Now, I’m about to draw some parallels that might give the wrong impression to family and friends. I want to compare INDUSTRIES, not suggest that I’m equating my upcoming wedding with a funeral. Also, Mom, the first site I stumbled into gave me the idea for this post, which was why I started scouring the internet for funeral planning advice - it’s not just something I like doing when I’ve got free time, I promise (a. sent me an email asking if I was becoming a scientologist after I found a lot of freaky new age nonsense sites in much the same way, and I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that I don’t ACTUALLY go in for furry fetishes [not that there's anything wrong with that, which is something I'll defend until I start raising eyebrows, but that's more of an old-school Worst Kept Secrets topic from the time before my parents started reading my blog {which I LOVE and I don't mean that to sound snarky}]).

Anyway, I looked at a lot of advice for someone trying to plan a funeral, and a lot of the language looked eerily familiar. Here are some excerpts from Funeral Planning 101:

Put Someone Objective in Charge of Funeral Home Arrangements

Someone who is responsible, and is not overwhelmed by the death, will be able to take the time to make sensible choices. Those in grief may be prone to bad judgment and could be easily overwhelmed by the influence of other people.

Shop Around and Ask Lots of Questions

You may find thousands of dollars in difference between funeral service providers, even within the same community. Some funeral homes have a family name and may seem privately owned (with all original family members on staff); but in fact, they may be owned by a funeral chain that has inflated prices. Choosing a funeral director is one of the most important decisions you’ll make, and you’ll want to be well prepared.

Funeral planning can be a trying time for any family. [CAN be?!?!]

source

Now, compare:

Shop around. Start by asking the venue’s wedding coordinator for a list of preferred florists, but also search Chamber of Commerce or visitors’ bureau websites. Study the online portfolios and make sure these are recent photos of actual clients rather than generic stock photos. Look for lots of testimonials. source

[Wedding vendors] want to make money and will pressure you into getting the more expensive option. Have a budget and stick to it. If you’re tempted by what they offer that is more expensive, say firmly, “That’s not in my budget, I’ll have to go home and see if I can move some things around and get back to you.” At home, it will be easier to decide if that extra option is really necessary or just an expensive add-on. source

There are many horror stories from brides who were taken advantage of when they were not aware of how to protect themselves (and their money) through [the process of wedding dress shopping]. source

Planning a wedding can be one of the most stressful events in a person’s life. source

Do you see my point? I thought I’d be able to easily find a few more quotes, but I swear that half of the sites I looked at could have been turned into wedding sites by changing a few key words. These are all from sites giving people advice on how to deal with two extremely important, and extremely opposite events, and they’re freakishly close to being identical. The similarities keep going if you start delving into vendor sites from both sides - you find out that in order to publicly declare a commitment / mourn the passing of a loved one, you’ve got to shell out all kinds of cash, otherwise you’re insincere or don’t understand the significance of the ceremony -  “There are certain occasions that override concerns about the economy. And a wedding is surely one of them.” (source) Of course, weddings and funerals both carry extremely significant emotional weight that shouldn’t be downplayed, but there’s not a right way to do either one, and whether or not the perfect designer dress/coffin is involved has no bearing on whether or not the intended celebration / closure / excitement / acceptance is achieved. I’m saying something pretty trite, I guess, but REALLY.

Let’s look at the wedding industry. I’d say about 70% of wedding sites I’ve looked at contain something about how girls (specifically, girls) dream about their weddings from childhood. Evidence:

The wedding dress is a symbol of their childhood dreams and hopes for a fairytale-like wedding. source

Many brides have had visions of wearing a sumptuous wedding gown since they were little girls. Whatever their vision - from a fairy princess to a sleek starlet - choosing the perfect wedding gown can be hard work. We will show you the steps involved to making your dream gown a reality. source

Words like “your day,” “dream wedding,” “most specialest thing EVAR” get strewn around like no one’s business, reinforcing a cultural stereotype that I’m not sure even exists anymore outside of this niche market. I have absolutely NOT dreamed about my wedding since childhood. Childhood was all about dreaming about being an astronaut, talking to dolphins, and bouncing back and forth between reality and my imaginary alterego SuperTiger (in one of those weird five-year old mind benders, SuperTiger was actually an anthropomorphic winged wolf, but that’s a story for another day). So this industry targets people in the middle of a mental rollercoaster, who are incredibly vulnerable to suggestions as to how to do things right - for me, and I’m guessing for other people, there’s a lot of internal pressure that has nothing to do with the relationship, family, or monogrammed napkin rings, to NOT MESS UP, and that’s ripe for someone to take advantage of.

And then there’s the funeral industry, which can be entirely sick. There, you’ve got emotionally overwhelmed and exhausted people dealing with the most difficult part of being human, who will sign a check without thinking about it, because they’ve got other, real things on their plate. This isn’t to say that there aren’t excellent funeral service providers out there (or wedding services, for that matter), but marking up a coffin by 350% is obscene. The average cost of an American funeral is $6,500 (not including cemetery costs), according to the National Directors Association, and it’s an eleven billion dollar industry. Of course, it’s much cheaper to die than get married, which carries an average price tag of $28,082, if that’s any consolation. I do understand the argument that funeral directors deserve some compensation for dealing with a line of work that most people prefer to sweep entirely under the carpet and spend their time helping people through some of the roughest moments in life, but isn’t there a line that’s been crossed? Of course, the internet is full of advice for how to plan a funeral for $800 or less, etc.

That’s just the money end, though. Here’s another side by side comparison of the sort of advice given to people that’s not financial, just a little creepy:

This service is all about remembering the deceased. The best way to remember the deceased is to think of him as in life. If the person was fun, loved Hawaii, and abhorred all things depressing, you could request that funeral guests come in Hawaiian shirts and pass out leis. If your family is more traditional or conservative, a more subdued funeral with guests dressed in black may be more appropriate. Tailor the funeral to the deceased and it will always stand out in the minds of the guests.  source

The best, most memorable weddings reflect the personalities of the couple getting married. To make sure your wedding isn’t a cookie-cutter copy of all the rest, don’t be afraid to infuse the event with your interests, shared memories and personal style. source

The funeral program is a special keepsake because it summarizes and highlights a loved one’s life and it is often the number one keepsake people take home from the memorial service. Attendees look forward to receiving this program because it shares the life story, accomplishments, and special memories of the deceased. source

The more guests feel involved with your wedding, the more likely they’ll have a great time. Wedding programs are a wonderful way to help your friends and family follow the ceremony and understand the traditions you’re incorporating, plus they can take theirs home as a keepsake. The key to crafting a good wedding program? Think practically and creatively. source

The most touching and meaningful eulogies are written from the heart. A eulogy does not have to be perfect. Whatever you write and deliver will be appreciated by the people in attendance….Think about the deceased and the relationship you had with them. Where you met (if your not family), things you did together, humorous or touching memories, and what you will miss the most might be things you decide to share. source

To begin with, make some notes about stories and experiences that you’ve enjoyed with the bride, groom or couple…Your speech should be from the heart, people will appreciate your sincerity. source

Think of the deceased. What colors did they like? The types of wood available can vary. Think of what they would want, within reason, and select from those items. Was the deceased someone who didn’t bother with frills? Or was this someone who wanted only the very best? There are caskets in every price range, from the plainest to the most “decked out”–it all depends on your preferences and budget. source

Take a minute to close your eyes and envision yourself as a bride. What do you see? Are you wearing a full ballgown with your hair in romantic ringlets? Or are you outfitted in an ethereal, flowing dress and loose hair sprinkled with flowers? Write down six adjectives that best describe how you want to look and feel on your wedding day. Some examples: princess, sexy, sophisticated, over-the-top, classic, boho. source

The sites even LOOK the same - the same kinds of menus, the same amount of checklists, printable budgets, etc. I mean, this is one thing that the internet is great for - advice when you need it badly and quickly. But really, if the internet is telling you how to do some of this stuff at your wedding or your funeral, doesn’t that point to a whole different problem apart from companies cashing in on your happiness/grief? And, back to the original point I sort of made earlier, doesn’t it say something kind of nasty about our species that intense emotions like happiness/grief create a rush of people looking to cash in? Can’t we just feel HAPPY or SAD during the hugely meaningful milestones in life without having checklists and comparison shopping charts?

Erm, this was an idea that was much more interesting in my head than it turned out to be in written form, but still. I’ve spent too much time on it, so I’m going to stop, even though it’s occurred to me that I’m pretty much just complaining about retail in its entirety, and the chances of having either a wedding or a funeral without having to buy SOMETHING are slim. Regardless. Final thought: weddings and funerals. Sheesh.

Bonus link: I don’t know if you’ll think this is as funny as I did, but try reading it out loud. And I’ll be running it by Chris shortly. It IS the answer to all of my prayers!

7 Comments

  1. a. brown wrote:

    I have probably spent more of my childhood thinking about my funeral than my wedding. I don’t remember dreaming about dresses (I wore princess dresses already) or flowers and candles. I did have nightmares about being 12 and at a wedding where I find out it’s MY wedding and the groom is an adult. Scary. But with funerals, it always seemed like that’s the one to think about, the last party, the one where you’re not there to make the decisions so you’d better start thinking now. I could have gotten married to Justin in a burlap bag, but I will NOT be buried in a hideous overpriced coffin.

    Read “The American Way of Death” by Jessica Mitford. It will make you very angry, but from the Slate article, it looks like things will be changing once our generation gets old.

    Just remember: a wedding should not be the happiest day of your life, or the specialest thing EVAR. People who believe may be party to this current divorce landslide.

    Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 1:07 am | Permalink
  2. a. brown wrote:

    Also, those Fortune Cookie soaps look like colorful used condoms. That’s either awesome or not.

    Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 1:08 am | Permalink
  3. Carrie wrote:

    I love the fortune cookie soaps!

    We had this eco funeral shop down the street from us in Brighton: http://www.ecopod.co.uk. The coffins seem look like flimsy papier mache up close, but I guess that’s the point.

    I’m going to mail you the wedding equivialent of Mitford’s funeral book, if I can find it in our piles of moving boxes. The Wedding Complex, I think it’s called…

    Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 8:04 am | Permalink
  4. Benji wrote:

    I think one reason why there’s such a market for telling people what to do, what to buy, and how to behave concerning weddings and funerals (and also why they’re similar) is that they are some of the last unquestioned bastions of ritual in the lives of Americans. We have such little cultural structure to our everyday lives that highly ritualized situations seem totally foreign…and thus require substituting an entirely different persona than the one we’re accustomed to projecting day to day. I think formal guidelines for weddings and funerals give people a script to follow in an alien situation. If you don’t follow the script, you risk damning the ritual by returning it to the same standards as banal, everyday life.

    Or at least, it’s fears like that that allow wedding and funeral peddlers to rake in the cash.

    There was a bill in the state legislature a few weeks ago about establishing a line of succession for dealing with remains. It was a long bill, and apparently the rep that wrote it owns a funeral home, so a good deal of it is devoted to protecting coroners and directors of funeral homes from liability if the kids are squabbling over whether to inter or cremate mom’s remains (meanwhile, the coroner is trying to figure out how to preserve her body long enough to see the legal battle through to its end). It also concerned what to do when nobody steps forward to take responsibility for the body, and the bleak isolation it conveyed was all the more depressing (and funny) for the fact that it’s written in the dry, repetitive language of law.

    Saturday, March 14, 2009 at 12:46 am | Permalink
  5. anne wrote:

    @Amy and Carrie - I’ve heard of both of those books but never read them. I wish I had a better bookstore nearby! I’m trying to force myself to overcome my phobia of reading books on my computer so that I can take advantage of my piracy-friendly host country, at least.

    @Benji - That’s a really good point, and I agree with you. But then again, I’m the sort of person who needs a “script” for most of my everyday stuff also, and the internet is just a fountain of wisdom for that… On a vaguely related note, have you read Stiff by Mary Roach?

    Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
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