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Deals to Die For 

At a meeting of morticians, it's all out on the table

Arranging for death is a serious undertaking. There are not enough episodes of "Six Feet Under" to prepare you for the business of selecting a casket, hiring a hearse and composing an obituary. But behind the sad faces and velvet curtains are regular working stiffs -- just like your plumber and insurance salesman. Morticians have office parties, professional associations and annual conventions with keynote speakers. Last week, Vermont funeral directors listened to one such luminary who's breathing new life into the death industry.

Mortician Thomas Lynch likes to remind his fellow funeral directors that theirs is an unexpandable market. Whether it's during wartime or peace, recession or prosperity, each day an average of 6300 Americans are, as Lynch puts it, "working into the past tense." But if Vermont's funeral directors don't start paying more attention to the essentials of funerals rather than the frills, their sales and the reputation of their profession will suffer.

"You can expand the market for books and golf and sushi, but it's one per customer when it comes to mortality," Lynch told a group of about 80 Vermont funeral directors who gathered at Burlington's Wyndham Hotel. "Just because a funeral costs the same as a trip to Disneyworld doesn't mean we should market it like one."

Lynch isn't just a funeral director -- he's also an award-winning writer, poet, college professor and international speaker. He's authored six books, including a collection of essays entitled The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade, which appeared on The New York Times best-seller list and won an American Book Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Esquire, Newsweek, The Paris Review, The Times of London and many other publications.

Lynch was in Burlington to speak to the Vermont Funeral Directors Association about funeral ethics; morticians earned continuing-education credits for attending his two-hour talk. A frequent speaker, usually to seminary students, medical ethicists and undertakers like himself, Lynch said, "I like to be around people who play in that deep end of the pool where there is no easy math, where there is no bottom line, where there is no certain faith."

He knows firsthand the troubles plaguing his profession. For the last 30 years, Lynch has operated a prosperous funeral business in his hometown of Milford, Michigan; he and his family own six mortuaries and perform 1500 funerals per year. But despite the high volume, Lynch said he's always thinking about those elements that make for a good funeral, one that "serves the living by caring for the dead."

The trouble is that over the last several decades, many morticians have lost sight of what it is they do, and why, said Lynch. They have fallen victim to the pressures of corporate salespeople who push expensive caskets, fancy urns and other accessories that jack up the price of death but have no real meaning to the bereaved. They are "the stuff, not the substance," he said. Just as a fine diamond doesn't make a fine marriage, Lynch suggested, a good casket doesn't promise a good funeral.

Case in point: Lynch recalled a family that asked him to place the cremated remains of a beloved uncle into an "Open Fairway" urn. Made of marble sculpted to resemble a brown leather golf bag, the Open Fairway urn is mounted on a slice of green fairway, complete with ball and tee, presumably so the erstwhile golfer can chip one last putt into the great beyond. Greens fee: $600. Lynch complied with the family's request, but he reflected on what it said about our culture and the changing role of his profession.

"They had him disappeared, downsized, turned into a knick-knack in some funereal karaoke, and asked me to become less the funeral director and more the caddy," Lynch told the VFDA. "We have gone from trafficking in the sublime to trafficking in the ridiculous."

Lynch's words elicited laughter and knowing nods -- and a few guilty smirks. His message to Vermont's morticians -- most of whom are men in their fifties, sixties or older -- was unmistakable. In this state, the name on the funeral home usually identifies the person who answers the phone at 3 a.m. when someone has died -- that is, most funeral businesses are not large, corporate affairs. Still, even Vermont hasn't escaped the "have it your way" mentality that pervades the funeral industry, where ritual has been supplanted by "the warm fuzzies."

"The food is fashionable, the talk is uplifting, the music is life-affirming, and someone can always be counted on to declare closure, usually right before the Merlot runs out," Lynch said. "And everyone is welcome but the dead guy. It's the commemorative equivalent of a wedding without the bride and groom."

For his talk Lynch dressed the part of the solemn undertaker -- black jacket, black slacks, black shoes and black shirt buttoned tight to his Adam's apple, round glasses, and no jewelry except a simple, gold pinky ring. But the portly sixtysomething mortician has a round, jovial face, a stubbly white beard, a sly grin and jowls that jiggle when he speaks. His sing-songy voice suggests an Irish brogue. If he grew his beard long and donned a red cap, he would be the spitting image of jolly old St. Nick.

Yet Lynch was dead serious about the eroding reputation of funeral directors. He's not opposed to casket makers selling coffins, florists selling flowers or monument makers selling tombstones. What he objects to are consumerist approaches to death -- the Internet crematories, the wide-mouth bass leaping from the corner of the dearly departed fisherman's casket, the high-pressure sales pitch for non-refundable, "pre-need" services -- that are driving the public to cheaper alternatives, such as cremation. A growing number of Americans -- 40 to 50 percent, at last tally -- are now going that route.

The median price for a funeral in Vermont is now $3540, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. And that doesn't include the casket, burial plot or headstone. In contrast, the median price for cremation is $1875.

As morticians arrange for both, Lynch challenged the group to make the cremation process more meaningful to families. He asked, for example, how many funeral directors in the room had seen a cremation from start to finish. A smattering of hands went up.

"You'd better go watch one, just so you know how it works," he implored. "If you don't go the distance with the dead you're hired to tend to, you're not doing your job. Shame on you!" It's that attitude, he added, that allows for scandals like the one several years ago at a crematorium in Georgia, where 300 bodies were discovered rotting out back.

The solutions, Lynch suggested, are more fundamental than tacky urns and commemorative doodads. Such as: Invite family members to watch the cremation. "I have never, ever had a family go to the crematory who said anything like, 'I wish I hadn't done that,'" he noted. "Uniformly, they are grateful."

Likewise, allow loved ones to dig the grave or place the cremated remains in the ground themselves. Hand them a shovel, Lynch said, and they'll know instinctively what to do. Only by stripping a funeral down to its essentials, he concluded, can they "embolden the living to deal with the dead."

Afterwards, Vermont's funeral directors spoke glowingly about Lynch's presentation. Lucien Hayes, a retired mortician who is now secretary of the Vermont Funeral Directors Association, said, "I think he did a great job. A lot of funeral directors are afraid to think outside the box."

Carol Pritchard, owner of Boucher and Pritchard Funeral Home in Burlington, called Lynch's talk "really refreshing." The funeral business has changed a lot since she got into it in 1971, she said, and it gets tougher every year to make a living. Pritchard is constantly approached by salespeople trying to sell her products she knows her clients won't want or can't afford.

"The only reason I ever stayed in this business was because I wanted to help people," she said. "I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, and if I go out of business, then at least I'll have a clear conscience."

Another undertaker from Chittenden County, who asked not to be identified, said Lynch's ideas really hit home for him, especially the suggestion about getting family members involved. "Sometimes you have to do something subtle to help people face what's happening," he said.

Lord knows, there's no getting out of it.

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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