August 9, 2007

The Ugliest Side of Capitalism

Back in the 1970’s I read a book entitled, ‘The American Way of Death.’ It gave an overview of the undertaker’s lobby and how Congress had helped the industry keep prices artificially high. It was a real eye-opener.

This week I discovered that the intervening 30 years have done nothing to change the status quo—except maybe make it more entrenched.

I’m my mother’s primary care-giver—an extraordinarily surreal experience when I’m half a continent away from her. Recently, following one of her ‘spells’ during which she was taken to a hospital where she proceeded to rip IV tubes out of her arms, my siblings and I came to the conclusion that it was time to enroll her in hospice care. So, I did that last week.
Then, the hospice suggested that we should begin the process of arranging for ‘disposal of the remains’ [such lovely euphemisms they use].

Our father’s body was cremated in 1998 and our mother has an adjoining spot in the same crypt reserved for her ashes. So, imagine my surprise when I attempted to pre-arrange cremation for my mother’s body and was told that that is impossible under existing laws.
Unless my mother has signed an ‘Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains’, our family is not allowed to pre-arrange cremation. Burial—yes. Cremation—no.
When the time comes—when my mother’s body is residing in a refrigerator in Texas—each of her four children has to sign an agreement to cremate her remains. And any one of us could, theoretically, refuse, enforcing a burial rather than cremation.
Set aside for the moment the fact that my mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s Disease, is in no position to sign anything. Do YOU feel comfortable bringing up this issue with your elderly parents?
And, guess which of the two processes is more expensive? Yep—you got it in one. Burial is, by far, the more expensive.

As with many families, these days, my siblings are scattered far and wide: One lives in Texas. Another in California. Another is in Missouri. And I’m in Florida. In the most important way, though, we are all together. We know our mother’s wishes and our father's body has already been cremated. None of us is going to have a last minute change of heart—although that was the excuse given me by the director of one of the funeral homes I contacted yesterday.
It’s obvious the undertaker’s lobby earned it’s money when this bit of legislation was passed. At a time when families are most vulnerable— when emotions are running high—an enormous amount of paperwork has to be faxed, FedEx’ed, overnighted or whatever back and forth among everyone involved. If consensus hasn’t already been reached [which thankfully, in our family, it has] it takes only one person to opt for the more expensive process to force it on everyone else.

Never mind the fact that such a rift might be long-lasting and cause years of strife within a family. The funeral director will have gotten his fee. The hell with the rest of us.


Larry said...

It never occured to me that this industry had so many powerful lobbyists.

No wonder there are laws like you faced.

two crows said...

hi, Larry--
I recommend The American Way of Death if you can find a copy. It's very enlightening.

for many years, embalming was required, even before a cremation that occurred within 24 hours of death. after years of struggle, that provision was, I think, tossed out. scientists proved that, with refrigeration a standard practice now, embalming does not, in fact, lower the incidence of passing on disease. [that was the excuse argued by the **ahem** lawyers -- NOT doctors or scientists.]

funeral directors fought pre-planning for YEARS as well as the use of fiberboard caskets for cremation-- but finally lost those battles.

obviously, tho, we've still got a lot of work to do when these people can still prey on families when they're at their most vulnerable.

an average patriot said...

two crows
Lobbyists leave nothing alone. it just kills me that you cannot even dis and take care of the remains the way you want.
I have been dealing with 2 elderlyu one in a nursing home and one home and it is not easy. The system there to seems stacked in favor of the industry.
I dread when they do pass because they have done everything wrong and it won't be easy. All you ever hear is the madia types talk about how much care they give their elderly parents etc but you never hear about what the average American goes through period.

Mary Ellen said...

Wow...I knew the undertaker industry had a strong lobby, but I never heard of this law. This is a Federal law or different from state to state?

I'm in somewhat the same position as you, I am my mom's primary caregiver. She lives very close to me, but my brothers are living in different states. I take her to doctors, shop, and generally take care of all her needs that she can't do on her own, since she doesn't drive anymore. I am also the only one of her children that has my name on all her bank accounts. She just made out a new will a few years ago and the lawyer never mentioned this law about the cremation. My mom wants to be cremated if she dies and her ashes buried in the plot that is over my dad's in Las Vegas (they stack them there). So, if she dies, I have to have all my brothers sign off on it? Maybe I'll have those papers drawn up just in case. She's not that ill (just a few minor things that need watching) but her mind is fine. This may be a good time for that.

Thanks for the info. and I'm so sorry to hear about your mom. Alzeheimer's is a horrible disease, I know this must be difficult.

Regarding the lobby...the reason I heard about how strong they are is when they had an expose on one of the shows like Dateline or something. They showed how the prices are fixed and artificially high. The profits they make on caskets is astronomical. If I recall, they even said that if someone is getting cremated, you still have to have a casket. Not sure if that's true or not.

two crows said...

hey, everyone--
I thought this post might touch a lot of folks where they live.
so sorry AAP that you're faced with 2 difficult situations. I thought _I_ had it bad--
and, m e--
I don't know if this is federal law or texas law-- but you could easily find out if it's true where you are-- is that Illinois? call any funeral home -- they can tell you the local law.

if it IS federal and if you can bring yourself to address this with your mother now, you can avoid this mess.
if she signs the 'Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains' she can give that role to whomever she chooses. then, when you're ready, the Agent can prearrange the cremation.

I am SO grateful we addressed as much as we did a number of years ago. she and I [and later, she and my sister] discussed the fact that she wanted a Do Not Resuscitate Order and hospice care when the time came to just let go.
now that that time is here and we can't ask her what she wants, it's such a relief to know we're doing what she would want us to do.

PoliShifter said...

the Death Industry is huge and corrupt.

It's a racket like most things.

In my opinion, we should be able to do what we want with our dead within reason. You should be able to take them home from the morgue and bury them in your backyard if that is your desire. But you can't. It's against the law.

The laws are written as you say, to benefit the death industry.

Funerals and burials plots are hella expensive. Even cremation is getting up there. And if you want services, a viewing, etc, you're looking at at least $10,000. You want a fancy casket? Kick it up another $5000.

What happened to the days of the pine box and being buried in the backyard of the local church?

Business happened. It's such an easy touch too because death is something that makes us all queasy. And when we experience the death of a loved one we are the most vulnerable. Who the hell cares what papers need to be signed or how much something costs when a close relative or friend has died? These grim reapers know this.

an average patriot said...

two crows
I am with you as you know. I agree with what you said in your comment on my post and wanted to make sure you got my reply. Feel free to keep the conversation going. Anyway!
an average patriot said...
two crows
I know I sent it to you but you never did tell me if you read my manifesto to the world. Anyway if you did you know from reading me and many others now that there is a very long Bush connection with Nazism.
You know two crows? You are entirely right about Russia but Bush is also doing the same thing but the entire world is following course to the demise of all of us.
It absolutely stinks that we know what is happening but
we do not matter and will be the victims of this extreme Nationalism that Bush initiated.
It will not be controlled now.
Anyway what I was getting at in reference to the Manifesto was Nostradamus gave us 2 roads to travel into the future. One to success and one to world war and destruction and we are on the latter. It will not be turned around now and I believe it has already started.
I can't remember who right now but another of the worlds great thinkers of old also called for the end in 2012. I expect things to explode much sooner but
I do not see total destruction but a very reduced society somewhere that will start over.
However what they all fail to realize is that this planet is already overwhelmed ecologically and they are preparing to worsen it exponentially. It has to be able to support life somewhere. Argh!

TomCat said...

I was an orphan by my 17th birthday, so I never had to take on that issue. When I was 14, I remember watching in horror as the mortician played on my father's guilt to up the cost of the funeral, complete with lies, including that the casked would preserve her as is for hundreds of years. The straw that broke the camels back for me was when the funeral director came running up to the car as we were leaving after the graveside ceremony, yelling, "You forgot your green stamps." I hit him.

two crows said...

hey, Poli--
it's so true that these laws prey on people when they're at their most vulnerable. that's why I called this the ugliest side of capitalism.
people's defenses are way down and they're not making rational decisions -- especially if they haven't talked about the issues ahead of time -- which most haven't.
and, yes, the funeral directors know this -- and use the knowledge to increase their bottom lines.
at least for the moment, we can still do whatever we want to with ashes. I imagine that's one reason for the popularity of cremation. rest assured, the industry is probably doing whatever it can to close that loophole so people will return to burial as the primary choice.

believe it or not, it's even illegal to bury your CAT in your back yard now-- tho that law is, so far, often winked at.
when my companion of 19 years died, I wanted to bury her in the back yard and the vet told me it was illegal but that, if I assured him she would be buried in a pet cemetery, he would leave her body with me. I told him that's what I was going to do-- then took a shovel to my 'cemetery' where my other animals were buried.

Suzie-Q (S-Q) said...

This is truly astonishing to me and I have never heard of such laws, however, my family has always buried family members and never cremated them. Both my father and mother's families have their own family cemeteries (named after their families), so it has always been that way.

LET'S TALK said...

I am very sorry to hear about your Mother. I hope you all are fine and get things together.
I am somewhat in the same fix as you are. My Mother is in the first stages of Alzheimer and last October I thought it was time that she stopped living by herself and I moved her in with me. She nolonger drive, so I am taking her from here to there.

I never knew things could be so hard during these periods. I will tell you as average citizens in this country. We sure catch it and make others rich because of the folks we put into office to run this country for the good and will of the people.

two crows said...

hey, tc--
I wasn't ignoring you--
apparently you posted your comment while I was composing mine-- and I didn't refresh the page before closing it.

sounds like you had a really rough time of it. and to stand there and watch your father being lied to and manipulated at such a time. . . . :(
hi, SQ--
yes, burial is MUCH easier to handle under existing law. the industry made sure it was so-- so that they could reap the most profits.
our family prefers cremation-- I think that's the option we've all chosen. bank on it, I plan to get that form right away and make sure my cousin has a copy.
hi, LT--
sounds like you've got it worse than I do.
early stage alzheimer's is a rough time: still able to have an opinion--but prone to bad judgment.
I wish you luck and white light in your work with your mom.
if it's not too late, I strongly recommend you have the talks with her about end-of-life care if she is willing. you'll be so glad, later, that you did.

and, yes, the industry [with the collusion of many congresses] has really hamstrung the rest of us -- making sure to sock it to us financially at a time when our own judgment is at a low ebb.
that's one reason why having those discussions now, and making decisions early, are so important.

beyond that, you don't want to get to the stage I'm at with a mother who can't tell you what she wants-- without having clarified her wants earlier.

I can't express how lucky I feel to be at this stage and already have all those questions answered.

TomCat said...

It was tough, TC, but let's have no more talk about burying me in the back yard, please. ;-)

two crows said...

oh, gee, TC--
why the hell not? :)

the point is, the laws concerning human remains are out of control-- which is precisely how the funeral directors want it.

TomCat said...

No doubt about that!