No Ethical Decomposition Under Capitalism
It’s been a long week here in the underworld. A seventy-hour work week, to be precise. Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life? More accurately, do what you love and you’ll have trouble setting boundaries and have no idea what a healthy work/life balance looks like.
Before I became a necromancer, I worked at a used bookstore. As a writer and reader, I loved that job at first, but ten years in retail slowly ground out all the joy. Towards the end, we were frequently understaffed, such that any additional absence meant extra work for everyone shifted that day. So even though we had plenty of sick leave available, people came to work ill, or powered through sobbing panic attacks. Capitalism: it smells like crying in the bathroom at work.
One of my former coworkers was fond of saying “There’s no such thing as a book emergency.” By which she meant that straining one’s physical or emotional health for a retail job was not worth it. I wholeheartedly agree.
But…a death emergency? That feels different, doesn’t it?
My corner of the underworld is also short-staffed right now. (During a pandemic? Quelle surprise!) And not just us, but many of our third-party psychopomp services as well. But hospitals need those beds. Families would prefer not to leave their loved ones lying on the floor. Bodies in those refrigerated trucks need to be embalmed as soon as possible. So we pick up the overtime, and maybe cry in the cooler a little. That’s just back of house–the directors are also stressed and overworked, but I don’t know where they go to cry. Maybe the casket selection room.
People have many different opinions when it comes to deathcare, but I suspect most everyone accepts that it’s necessary. For me, the part where necessity, ethics, and good intentions sink like Artax in the Swamp of Sadness is the intersection of death and capitalism.
Before I went to mortuary school, I had very little experience with the funeral industry. I absorbed most of my ideas from media. (Because everyone asks, no, I didn’t watch Six Feet Under.) You’re probably familiar with most of those negative stereotypes: exorbitant prices; bilking grieving families; stodgy, conservative, out-of-touch old men running everything. Being a big fan of Caitlin Doughty’s work, I expected to share many of her prejudices against the industry. It turns out my feelings are more complicated than that.
In reverse order, my opinions and experiences go something like this: Yes, there are a lot of old white dudes in the industry, as in many industries. I’ve been trapped in hearses with seventy-year-olds who want to share their wisdom and put their hands on my knee. The industry on the whole, however, is trending young and female. In my Mortuary Science program, I—thirty-nine when I started—was one of the older students. The vast majority of my classmates were twentysomething Latinx or POC, with plenty of queer representation. The industry is still fairly conservative, but a sea change is coming.
Bilking families? It definitely happens. Only a few weeks ago I saw it happen to the family of someone I know.* Unethical assholes infest everything. However, what they are doing is not legal. Many of the stereotypes of the greedy funeral director hail from the days when the industry was unregulated. It wasn’t until 1984 that the Federal Trade Commission enacted the Funeral Rule, which requires funeral providers to give customers clear itemized prices and prohibits forcing unwanted goods or services on families. In my personal experience, directors are much more likely to work with families and try to help them than they are to pressure them into buying Grandma a fancier casket.
As for prices…. Yeah, they’re awful. Caskets in particular are exorbitant, and funerals in general are terribly expensive. My employer is part of our county’s indigent burial program, providing burial or cremation for families with no money for services. I’ve sat with families who wept with relief to hear the county program had accepted their case, because they had no other recourse. I’m angry to this day on behalf of everyone who has lost a loved one and immediately panicked because they couldn’t afford to grieve. You can’t afford to get sick, but you can’t afford to die, either. Welcome to capitalism: we’re soaking in it.
On the other side of that coin, rent in my city is also exorbitant. Having earned my license, I’m now making the most money I’ve ever made, with health insurance and sick leave and other benefits. I can still barely afford an apartment. Funeral homes, like their employees, need money in order to function.
I see a lot of criticism of the funeral industry in America. Some of it is quite valid. But much of it is facile condemnation of an easy target, without examining the underlying causes. It’s not unlike publishing in that regard—the industry is a hot mess, but writers need to eat. Deathcare, like healthcare, like art, is necessary. So, as a necromancer I ask you, how do we fix it?
If you have questions for the necromancer, whisper them into the darkness at the hour of the wolf, or use our submission form at thedeadlands.com, or ask @stillsostrange on Twitter.
* This happened outside of Texas, the only state in which I’m licensed to practice, so I had to sit on my urge to burst in like the Kool-Aid Man.
Amanda Downum is the author of The Necromancer Chronicles, Dreams of Shreds & Tatters, and the World Fantasy Award-nominated collection Still So Strange. Not content with armchair necromancy, she is also a licensed mortician. She lives in Austin, TX with an invisible cat. You can summon her at a crossroads at midnight on the night of a new moon, or find her on Twitter as @stillsostrange.