Modernising Death - Looking at the modern crematorium

    Death is becoming a very 'modern' operation, no different to other big industries like tourism.  As a result there is a lot of uniformity, conformity and predictability in the funeral industry.  And the various crematorium are a good example of this.  They were built at different times in different places by different groups, yet they share many similarities.

    The 'funeral gaze' has a great influence on the industry.  As a lecturer once said, the gaze is "not somebody staring.  It's staring with intent.  Somebody staring with an idea to change things".  It is the influence the people have on what they see and experience.  The gaze is simultaneously encapsulates what is seen and the way it is seen (Perkins & Thorns, 2001, p. 187).  So mourners have a great influence on the funeral industry through their gaze.

    But the funeral industry also has its own influence on the mourners.  The funeral industry manipulates the funeral gaze.  This is because the industry only lives if the funeral gaze is regular and predictable (Pagenstecher, 2003, p. 1).  If the gaze was unpredictable funeral parlours, crematoriums, cemeteries and so on could not sell or market themselves effectively.  And InvoCare (along with others in the industry) realise this and manipulate it through various processes such as theming and dedifferentiation (Bryman, 1999; Pagenstecher, 2003, p. 1). 

    This manipulation is achieved through the concept of Disneyization and McDonaldization.  These concepts refer to the never-ending process, and outcome of the process, of control over every aspect of an image on a massive and local level.  While there are similarities between these two concepts, the difference is that while McDonaldization is about efficiency, calculability, predictability and (most importantly) control.  Whereas Disneyization is about theming, dedifferentiation, merchandising and (most importantly) emotional labour (McCall G. 2., 2010).

    Theming is a common, and the most obvious, form of Disneyization (Bryman, 1999, p. 29).  Theming simply is the productization of an organisation, such as the use of a logo or specific font.  One way to see this in the funeral industry is in the crematoriums.  Crematoriums were often built at different times and for different reasons across Sydney.  We can see this by looking at four main crematoriums in Sydney.  The first is Rookwood Gardens is the oldest operating crematorium in Sydney.  Established in 1925 it accommodated those who could not afford a burial and to cope with a higher volume of deceased than cemeteries could.  The second is Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park (ESMP) crematorium was opened in 1938 to deal with returning soldiers.  The third is Northern Suburbs crematorium, opened in 1922.  The fourth is Macquarie Park crematorium.  Opened in 2004 it was a radically new design and operating procedures aimed at covering as many services as possible, in an efficient and modern way.  Nothing like it had been buit in Sydney before.

    These four crematoriums are in different parts of the city, run by different organisation, built at different times and for different reasons.  Yet their themes, logos and setup are all very similar..  They name their chapels based on points of the compas, such as 'North Chapel' or 'West Chapel'.  They use similar colours, browns, pastels and creme.  But not all four are like this.  Macquarie Park names its chapels after plants, such as 'Palm Chapel' and 'Magnolia Chapel'.  It also uses different colours such as whites, blue and some silvers.  And while the other crematoriums use carpet or wooden floors Macquarie Park uses white tiled floors.  They are even set up the same way, from the way in which you or the hearse enters to where you sit and where the coffin is placed.  There is a asile down the center leading to a stage area surrounded by a curtain.  The stage area is in a recess, indented into the wall at the front and surrounded by a curtain.  The stage has a 'catafalque' on which to place the coffin.  The catafalque is raised so everyone can see it clearly from anywhere in the room.  The hearse can pull right up to the front door and there is parking for mourner cars nearby.  Macquarie Park is different, it is the only one which has a catafalque that is on wheels.  It is the only one which has awnings in front of every chapel and the only one with large modern glass windows and doors with aluminium frames.  And yet most people would see it as any other crematorium.  The logos at all four are of either bird, flower or a sunset and with simple clean lines and colours.  Every crematorium logo is similar to the point of being interchangeable.  But they reflect the industry on a larger level.  They are badges that show who owns and runs the crematoriums and what they are like.  The similarity of these badges reflects the similarity of the groups who run the crematoriums.

    These crematorium employ similar yet different themes to illustrate how they sell the same product, but are different companies.  This gives the impression that they are different places with different experiences and 'products'.  After all, if they all used the exact same themes then people could not differentiate between them.  And people want difference, and a newness, but not to lose touch with what’s known (McCall G. 2., 2010).

    McDonaldization is also apparent in these four crematorium.  The way the service procedes is basically the same in every place.  Everything is predictable and tightly controlled by the staff and by the process itself.  The funeral staff will arrive with the hearse, inform the crematorium staff of their arrival and exchange paperwork.  This paperwork is the same in each crematorium.  Depending on family wishes the funeral staff and/or the family will then carry the coffin into the chapel and place it on the catafalque.  They will say a few words, prayers or whatever they wish, sometimes placing flowers or memorabilia on the coffin as they either enter or exit.  Finally, about 20 to 45 minutes later the curtains are closed and the service is over.  The coffin is then taken into a back room where it is either stored in a fridge to be cremated at a later date or cremated right away.  It is the same, predictable formule in every place and does not vary much.

    The staff, both crematorium and funeral (who are usually from different organisations) keep everything in order.  Working together to do so.  They keep people out of the chapels until the place is ready and set up, they organise the paperwork, they make sure everything runs as it should.  But they do this because of tight rules and procedures.  The consequences for not filling out the right papers in the right way are quite serious, as you can imagine.  Treating the family differently, such as taking them into the chapel too early or late, can again have consequences.  If anything does not go according to the formule then the mourners become upset, even if they do not know the formule.  Everything is tightly controlled and efficient.

    So we can see that the four crematorium all have clear signs of Disneyfication and McDonaldization.  They are uniformed and predictable in almost every way.  Thus we would think there was little originality or differentiation between them and between the services.  As Guneratne highlights, this idea is a superficial simplistic view (Guneratne, 2001, p. 230).  If anything, dedifferentiation and globalisation polarize and emphasise the local differences (Guneratne, 2001).  In other words globalisation does not create a global culture, but rather it “reinscribes locality in new ways” (Guneratne, 2001, p. 527).  And this is the same with the funeral industry.  The conformity reinforces their differences, what makes them individual.

    Going back to the logos we see that although each one is very similar to the other, they are all different and emphasise who runs the crematorium.  Their procedures are slightly different, and these slight differences are most important to each place.  How the hearse pulls up to the chapel, where and how the papers are done, where the mourners park, etc is all different at each place.  But more importantly the staff and design of the crematorium is the biggest difference.  Not only do the staff wear different uniforms but they practice different procedures.  For example at ESMP the staff will charge extra for showing others how to use the AudioVisual system in the chapels and then leave.  While at Macquarie Park the staff will be present for the whole service and run the AudioVisual system themselves, for no extra cost.  Macquarie Park did this deliberately to be different from the other crematorium, to give the mourners something they will not get at another place.  They also offer different services to go along with the funeral.  Macquarie Park has catered function rooms within easy walking distance of the chapels and will record the whole service for families.  It highlights the modern features and designes of the crematorium.  Rookwood Gardens contrastingly emphasises its history and garden settings.  And it does not make any attempt to offer a function room or encourage the recording of funerals.

    Crematoriums are a modern organisation comparable to the tourism industry.  They package and sell a product like any other company.  The only real difference being that the product they sell is a funeral service.  As a result there is a lot of conformity and similarity between the crematoriums.  However this only forces them to reinforce why they are different, what makes them unique.  If they all offered the exact same product then there would be no way for people to chose between them.  And people like choice, even if it is just an illusion.  So long as the choice does not come at the cost of what is expected.


References for further reading:

Bryman, A. (1999). The Disneyization of society. The Sociological Review , 46 (1), 25-47.

Guneratne, A. (2001). Shaping the tourist's gaze: Representing ethnic difference in a Nepalese village. Journal of the Royal Anthropologist Institute , 527-543.

McCall, G. 1. (2010, 3 31). Tourism as a development strategy. SOCA3106 Unpublished Lecture . UNSW.

McCall, G. 2. (2010, 4 28). The “tourist gaze”, industrialisation and accommodation: Guides and hopes for the safe adventure. SOCA3106 Unpublished Lecture . UNSW.

Pagenstecher, C. (2003). The construction of the tourist gaze. How industrial was post-war German tourism? In L. Tissot, Construction d'une industrie touristique au 19e et 20e siècles. Perspectives internationales. Development of a Tourist Industry in the 19th and 20th Centuries (pp. 373-389). Neuchâtel, International Perspectives.'

Perkins, H., & Thorns, D. (2001). Gazing or performing: Reflections on Urry's tourist gaze in the context of contermporary experience in the Antipodes. International Sociology , 16 (2), 185-204.

Urry, J. (2001). Globalizing the tourist gaze. Lancaster LA 1 4YN, UK: Department of Sociology.

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