An average funeral can cost more than $6,500, not including cemetery charges. Joe agrees that’s too expensive, but what part should he scrub? Today, people want to tailor their final celebration as much as possible, especially if they’re cremated. About 32 percent of Americans who died in 2005 chose cremation, and more than half are expected to opt for it in 20 years.
You can wear your dead aunt’s final thumbprint as a necklace, or replace removable casket corners with golf or kitty plaques to give the final sofa a dash of character. They can mix your ashes with a cement chunk called an Eternal Reef; drop it to the ocean floor and you are forever bonded with the sea. They can even keep you in a painting by mixing colors with ashes, literally putting the remains of you in your likeness.
“We can put you in a candle. We can put you in an eagle,” says Tyler as he examines a display cabinet.
A hunter’s family replaces flowery pictures with moose heads mounted above a camouflage casket. Bikers roll in a display Harley for visitation, and roll out in a motorcycle gas tank urn called “Rider’s Last Ride.” As more people accept cremation, the industry is even developing new ways to turn the dead to dust. Sweden is even considering a method called “promession,” which some scientists claim saves the environment from burning fuels. Bodies are soaked in liquid nitrogen and vibrations shatter them to pieces.
Even with all the extras to spruce up funerals, a director’s starting salary is on a par with new teachers, averaging between $25,000 and $30,000 during the last decade, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education, and the median annual income is about $49,000. People often forget the overhead that comes with running a home, Joe says. Cars, heating, cleaning, supplies and more, not including the breaks given to those who can’t afford basic funerals, pile up on top of running his own family dwelling. He says he’s happy they don’t have to answer to public shareholders’ demands to increase earnings. Families or small private companies still hold the majority of U.S. funeral homes while public corporations own only about 11 percent, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. But creative advertising doesn’t lure customers; they call when they have to.
Ninety miles away in Detroit, associate professor Peter Frade walks the halls where Tyler and family learned their craft: preserving bodies, sculpting faces, making up features and selling death. The former mental institution at Wayne State University is Michigan’s only mortuary science school, one of 56 nationwide. With his animated personality and perky bow tie, it’s hard to believe Frade teaches about such a grim subject. But he grew up around it, too. His brother has been in the funeral business for 45 years.
“I’m very comfortable in cemeteries,” says Frade, who bought a PT Cruiser because it resembles a mini hearse. “Maybe that makes me weird.”
In one classroom, an older woman’s face sits tilted on a laboratory table, her faux skin covered in an abnormal, bright-pink hue and surrounded by the gray ringlets of a long wig. A tall, wire shelf in the corner stores about a hundred green, foam heads tossed in like soccer balls in an equipment room. Along another wall, clay models are displayed in a row, each refined to match its creator’s face in a nearby photograph. A collage plasters the wall above with magazine cutouts of models, regular folks, and celebrities like Jay Leno and his famous pronounced chin.
Most mortuary students these days don’t grow up playing hide and seek in casket rooms or washing the family hearse. In fact, Tyler was the only legacy in his class of 30 students, which educators there say is normal today. Almost all his father’s classmates were from families nearly 30 years ago.
So what attracts newcomers into caring for the dead? Many have some form of unresolved loss in their lives; others were always curious, but thought people wouldn’t take them seriously for choosing a career in funeral service, says Frade, also the program’s director. “What can I say?” he says, “it turns people on.”
A large cooler serves as the school’s centerpiece, with three doors leading to an attached embalming room, autopsy observation and anatomy lab. Frade opens the heavy silver door, exposing several long, white objects stacked on metal trays, chilling at a cool 35 degrees. A single foot peeks out from its covering — the only visible flesh among dozens of bodies whose identities are concealed under plain white sheets.
Outside the main lecture hall hangs a plaque for the Restorative Art Award given out to each class. Tyler’s name is engraved under 2006, a few rows away from his dad who holds the 1979 title. Class composites lining a nearby wall show the growing diversity among the students. Today, half the graduates are women and there are more minorities, better mirroring their future clients, as death doesn’t discriminate between genders or ethnicities.
“In funeral service, you never get a second chance,” Frade says. “So first impressions, accuracy, sympathy, come first. And if they aren’t there, a grieving populace will see it.”
Tyler recalls the first funeral he arranged. He did everything taught in school, but as he cried during the eulogy, he learned that sometimes there’s also a little humanity involved.
“They’re going to have questions and they don’t want to talk to someone too distraught to answer,” he says. “At the same time, I don’t want to be so cold that people are turned off by that.”
As the procession pulls into the cemetery, a pickup truck with an attached shovel greets the hearse before leading it to the plot. Tyler is not happy with this performance.
“Look! There’s a backhoe driving around!” he says. “This is terrible.”
It’s all too mechanical, he explains with disappointment. Families often leave before the vault company manually cranks the casket six feet under, a backhoe swings the top on, and cemetery workers fill the grave.
“When someone in my family dies, I’ll be out there shoveling dirt,” Tyler says. “I want my suit to be nice and muddy when I’m done, maybe even ruined. But that’s just my opinion.”
Even though everyone encounters death at some point, it remains taboo. As Frade put it: “People don’t want to think about death. There’s too much to think about in life. When it happens it happens.”