Karen Leonardhas

Sacred Bones

Author Karen Leonardhas revised Jessica Mitford’s 1963 investigative classic The American Way of Death. Now she has a bone to pick with funeral home directors

By Stephanie Hiller

D EATH is not only sometimes painful, frequently inconvenient, and only seldom desired, it’s expensive. From nursing homes to fancy hospitals, the process of leaving the planet is enormously costly, yet enormously profitable for those who usher us out. Not the least of our beneficiaries in death is the undertaker. And today, the price of a funeral, never a bargain basement deal, is exorbitant.

Our “remains,” as the mortician prefers to call a cadaver, are a valued commodity for a prosperous $16 billion-a-year industry tending to some 2 1/2 million deaths a year. And just like the other industries that supply the food, the medicine, and all the other goods and services on which we depend, the funeral industry is becoming increasingly corporatized. Says author Karen Leonard, head of the Sebastopol-based Redwood Funeral Society, one of 150 similar groups nationwide that provide funeral information to consumers, “You know the song lyric, ‘My soul belongs to the company store’? Well, your body belongs to Wall Street.”

And, she laughs heartily, “It’s become nothing more than a commerce of corpses.”

Leonard is also the researcher for the revision of the late muckraking journalist Jessica Mitford’s best-selling exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, originally published in 1963 and just released in a new edition by Knopf.

“Decca,” as Mitford was known to her friends, was the idol of the intellectual left until her death in 1996 at the age of 78, and the heroine of investigative journalists everywhere. “She was amazingly funny,” syndicated columnist Molly Ivins once said about her, “and such a class act. She was just enchanting.”

Born to a highly aristocratic English family, Mitford was a confirmed Communist till her dying day.

“She was engaged with life at every moment,” says Leonard, who lived and worked at Mitford’s home during the months before the journalist’s death. “She’s the only person I know who cut a rock-‘n’-roll record in her 70s. She liked to have an entourage of people around her all the time. They were from all walks of life, but she treated them all with the same gracious hospitality.”

Leonard first met Mitford at a national meeting of the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America and was outraged to discover that Mitford’s address had received no prior publicity.

While carrying out her own activities, Leonard hurriedly set up appointments with reporters. None of them showed. Mitford, who had been waiting alone in her room for two and a half hours, was beside herself. She came into the lobby and “all but raised her cane at me! I was devastated. My dream was to work with Decca on one of her books.”

IT was the corporatization of the industry that spurred Mitford to revise her book. She felt that people need to know that Duffys’ Funeral Parlor, though it still bears the family name, may no longer belong to the Duffys.

Careful to conceal their ownership of established, no longer independently owned mortuaries, three large corporations have been taking over the U.S. industry during the past 10 years, performing one out of every five funerals nationwide. More than half the industry in California is corporate-owned, and out of 3,000 cemeteries and crematoria, only 300 remain independent.

The most well-known cremation outfit, the Neptune Society, is owned by Stewart Enterprises, the third largest international conglomerate.

The corporatization of the industry means that we have less control over our own dead bodies. Texas-based Service Corporation International, the Loewen Group, and Stewart have jacked up their profit margin by consolidating such services as embalming and funeral transportation to accommodate several mortuaries at one time, creating highly lucrative economies of scale. But the profits have not been passed on to the consumer.

Chain mortuaries usually raise prices–sometimes as much as 100 percent–after acquiring an established independent home. With funeral prices increasing three times faster than the cost of living, final arrangements are now the third largest expense families face. “It’s a cornered market,” Leonard is quick to point out. “Everybody dies.”

For the most part, survivors, too busy and often too distraught, are not inclined to shop around. The average full funeral in America is now $4,850, according to the National Funeral Directors’ Association. Add another four grand for the average cemetery charges, and an American death costs as much as most folks in this country spend for the down payment on a house.

Leonard, 45, began researching the funeral industry 10 years ago, when she became a partner in a highly unusual enterprise: the Funerary Art Gallery in San Francisco. It all started one day when Leonard was talking with a couple of old friends about their careers. A student of gerontology at Sonoma State University, Leonard was very disappointed when she figured out that the only way she could make a living in that field was in administration.

Her friends had similar frustrations. Leonard’s best friend of 27 years told the group she had recently received a news clipping from her mother depicting a woman selling caskets. Her mother’s scribbled comment read, “Maybe this is what you and Karen should be doing.”

“We thought of artists and craftspeople making caskets. Overnight we were hearing from artists all over the world,” Leonard says. “A lot of them were very famous artists and had incredibly uniquely wonderful stuff. Artists had always paid a role in memorialization until the American funeral industry set up, and now everything was mass manufactured.”

People who came to the gallery looking for a reasonably priced casket later returned, saying funeral directors wouldn’t take their caskets “because the bottom might fall out!” Sometimes mortuaries even damaged the caskets, then claimed they were of inferior quality. Disturbed, Leonard went undercover to search for an honest funeral director.

At one of the biggest mortuaries in San Francisco, she and her partners were met at the door by two funeral directors. “It was plush city, and we were nervous, because we were retailers, we were the enemy,” Leonard says. They were shown a film in which two types of casket were displayed, the protected and the unprotected. “I asked the funeral director what they were protected from,” Leonard says. “He leaned forward, put his hands on the desk, and said, ‘Aliens and foreign objects reaching the body of your loved one.'”

The metal and mahogany boxes sealed with a tight rubber gasket create an anaerobic environment in which bacteria thrive, reducing the body in a matter of months to a noxious putrefaction and releasing gases that are capable of exploding the container. Indeed, when the casket is headed for a mausoleum, the savvy mortician will pop the seal on the way to the cemetery, just to let in some healthy fresh air, to avoid possible damage to the crypt walls if the lid blows.

LEONARD had just finished reading The American Way of Death. “I loved it! I thought it was the best book I had ever read,” she says. Entering the casket room, Leonard was amazed to discover that the selections were arranged exactly as Mitford had described 20 years earlier, with the lower-priced items arranged in the “Aisle of Resistance” and the better models in the “Aisle of Prosperity,” a sales design created many years ago by the infamous W. M. Krieger to seduce the consumer into buying the “better”–fancier, cushier, longer-lasting–casket.

Leonard visited lots of funeral homes. Then one day she found what she was looking for. At Pacific Internment, she met funeral director Frank Rivera, an ex-cop. “While I was in the office, he was on the phone,” Leonard recalls, “telling a customer, ‘You don’t have to do embalming to view the body.’

“That’s when I knew I had found an honest funeral director.”

Leonard calls embalming “the heart and soul of the American way of death. It’s what makes undertakers necessary,” she says, making it very clear that she’s not in this just for the fun of it.

Preparing the body, transporting it, and arranging the memorial service do not require special training or professional certificates; these tasks can be performed by the families.

But embalming is a technical procedure that must be learned, and, involving as it does the removal of essential bodily fluids, it is highly regulated. Hence it is embalming alone that endows the funeral director with the professional status–and inflated income–he or she craves. Most people assume that embalming is required for reasons of public health and that it preserves the body. Neither is true.

If anything, embalming is the hazard. Blood-borne pathogens removed from the corpse are a biohazard, and the toxic chemicals used in the process are pollutants.

Nor does an embalmed body last longer than a refrigerated stiff. Why, then, are bodies embalmed? Funeral directors speak about the importance of the “memory picture” of the beloved that retains the appearance he had in life. Such a picture is essential for grief therapy, funeral directors murmur. For many families, it’s an unforgettable image of debt.

Pacific Internment offered the consumer a choice. Prices were reasonable; the casket sold for twice, not five times, the wholesale price. But it would not have been appropriate for Leonard to advertise her favorite mortuary at the gallery. Instead, she began posting price lists of all the mortuaries so that her customers could be informed.

The law requires that a price list be offered at the outset, but many mortuaries skip this step, or offer 10-page brochures that the bereaved do not read. Leonard began consulting with customers, informing them of their rights.

Leonard’s education in funeral affairs was advanced considerably when, quite by accident, she called the Bay Area Funeral Society, thinking it was a funeral home. Started by Mitford’s husband, attorney Bob Treuhaft, the society was the most radical of the non-profit consumer organizations. There she met Ernie Landauer, who persuaded her to open a branch in the North Bay.

“There were 2,000 names on the membership list. Unfortunately, no one had checked on these people for a long time,” Leonard says. “More than half had moved on from that address–or from this life.”

It was through her work for the Funeral and Memorial Societies that Leonard had the opportunity to meet Mitford again–under more favorable circumstances. Landauer urged her to write Mitford and report her own activities on the consumer’s behalf.

“She won’t know it’s you,” he advised. Leonard began a correspondence that culminated in a phone call one stormy day in 1995. Says Leonard: “‘I’m thinking of revising The American Way of Death,’ she told me, ‘but I just can’t consider doing it unless you’ll be my researcher.'”

Leonard went to the author’s home in Oakland with some trepidation. Mitford was rushing out to attend a protest against the hospital that had recently cared for her; she didn’t recognize the woman she’d railed against some years before. Among all the Funeral and Memorial Societies nationwide, Leonard is the only member who is not a retiree.

“Most of the funeral societies have become middlemen for the funeral industry,” Leonard explains. “The members are elderly, white, well educated. Their main interest is lowered costs, and the industry provides services to them at slightly reduced rates.”

The Redwood Funeral Society, by contrast, has become a true consumers’ advocacy organization, doing price surveys, educating the public about consumers’ last rights, and actively advocating for legislation to protect the consumer from the tricks of the undertaker’s trade. A rule designed to do just that was passed in 1972 in response to the outcry raised by Mitford’s book, but it has not been enforced.

THIS SPRING, the RFS completed a survey of Sonoma County funeral homes. Those owned by the three corporate giants charge as high as twice as much as the others, and three times as much as Pacific Internment’s Frank Rivera does. Prices for direct cremation (no funeral, no embalming, no viewing the body) range from $905 at Pleasant Hill Mortuary to a whopping $1,839 at Eggen & Lance, which is owned by SCI. By contrast, Pacific Internment offers direct cremation for $530 to members of the RFS, who can prearrange without prepaying, avoiding the industry’s prepayment trap, which allows them to use members’ money while members pay the interest on it, and never turns out to be quite enough to cover all the costs when the time comes. Leonard states unequivocally that the FTC has gone “into cohoots” with the National Funeral Directors Association. “For 10 years,” she says, “SCI had had to tell the FTC when they purchased a new mortuary. SCI went to the FTC to reopen the ruling, stating that this was too much of a financial burden.

“The FTC generously dropped the requirement!”

The consumer advocacy board of the Department of Consumer Affairs is composed entirely of members of the industry. “When you go to Sacramento, you can tell the public is not welcome,” says Leonard. The goal of the board is not to handle complaints or otherwise protect the consumer. “It’s to raise the requirements of funeral directors to make sure small business people cannot afford to get into the business, and to make themselves professionals like doctors and lawyers,” Leonard says.

A 1997 ruling states that nobody who has not obtained training approved by this board of funeral directors and embalmers is permitted to help arrange or discuss funeral transactions, or even participate in arranging for transporting a dead body. Not only must you have proper training; you must work for a mortuary.

“Most people didn’t even know you had the right to care for your dead,” says Leonard, “so I went on an educational campaign–and they started doing it!”

The Natural Death Care Project in Sebastopol, for example, exists to guide families through the process of caring for the body at home and transporting it to the crematorium in a simple cardboard or pine box, without the intervention of a funeral director.

In the past five years, over 300 deaths in Sonoma County have been handled this way, at enormous savings. But more important, families who have cared for their dead say that the experience of washing and preparing the body and laying it out at home is not at all creepy or weird; it is actually rewarding, allowing for full closure with the beloved friend or relative and a firm sense of the reality of death.

Local funeral directors say the industry has been affected by the work of the Natural Death Care Project and others to the tune of $70,000 a year. And word is spreading. The NDCP is planning to do workshops with health-care professionals at Kaiser this summer on alternatives to the fraudulent practices of the funeral industry. The Redwood Funeral Society is trying to develop a special project to inform the clergy of their parishioners’ options.

It’s free choice that Karen Leonard is after, and the right to our sacred bones. “We have to take apart laws that amount to restraint of trade. . . ,” she says. “The funeral industry doesn’t [have the right to] tell us how to deal with our deaths. We [should] decide what we want.”

How a society cares for its dead reflects the values it holds dear. For Leonard, the reign of the modern-day mortuary shows that we are still confusing monetary worth with human worth, still believing that spending a lot of money can prove or else compensate for the love we felt but couldn’t share.

“We have to change the way we deal with our dead,” Leonard says. “We have to take a look, as a culture, at the soundness of our minds.”

Karen Leonard will discuss The American Way of Death Revisited on Monday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m. at Copperfield’s Books, 2316 Montgomery Drive, Santa Rosa. .

From the September 24-30, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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