Conversations With America’s Funeral Directors

Max Rivlin-Nadler in The Awl:

ScreenHunter_15 Jan. 20 10.30Walking into McCormick Place, Chicago’s half-hangar, half-labyrinth convention center, I looked at the schedule to find that I had just missed “Canadians Do Cremation Right.” The 130th National Funeral Directors Conference, was underway; held each year in a different city, the conference brings together funeral directors from across the country for three days of presentations, trade talk, awards and camaraderie. After shaking off my initial disappointment at having missed the Canadian talk, I scanned the remaining workshops. After passing on “Marketing Your Cemetery: Connecting With Your Community” and “Managing Mass Fatality Situations,” I circled “The Difference Is In The Details,” an embalming workshop.

The small film company I sometimes work for was planning a feature on new trends in funerals, and I had flown out for the weekend to try to meet some of the younger, hipper funeral directors at the conference. One of these was Ryan, a round man with a wide smile and an impeccable hair-part, whose car, he told me, has a bumper sticker that says “Let's Put The 'Fun' Back In Funeral.” He started his career as a funeral director, but had since moved into the lucrative field of “death care industry” consultation, where he works with funeral directors on ways to expand their businesses. In one of our conversations he tells me, “The worst thing I’ve heard a funeral director say is ‘we’ve always done it this way.’” Later, I tell him my plan to attend that evening's “Funeral Directors Under 40: A Night on the Town” event. Without missing a beat, he lowered his voice and said, “Funeral directors are notoriously heavy drinkers. There will definitely be some hook-ups.”

The funeral industry is in the midst of a transition of titanic proportions. America is secularizing at a rapid pace, with almost 25% of the country describing itself as un-church. Americans, embracing a less religious view of the afterlife, are now asking for a “spiritual” funeral instead of a religious one. And cremation numbers are up. Way up.

More here.