Unfortunately it is not a good book in many ways, nor is it a good representation of the funeral industry. So I have decided to pick out a couple of faults with it.
In the first section of this critique I look at the first ten main chapters. Giving a briefe recount of a few main points or issues and my views on them. In the second part I look at a few reoccurring themes and concepts throughout the book.
This post is rather long, about 26 pages and a little over 14,000 words (including citations and titles). It's actually one of the longest posts I've written for the blog, taking about 4 hours to put together. Normally I write a post in an hour or less. So feel free to just skip to whatever you find interesting!
Larkins, R., (2007). Funeral Rights. Penguin Group Australia, Melbourn. p.256.
This book is easy to read, and does try to bring the funeral industry to the public sphere. For that I do appreciate the book, and concede that the writing style is fun and well paced. However, the book is not accurate of the industry at all. Larkins makes sweeping claims and oversimplifications, which are often wrong. For example on page 10 Larkins states how the funeral industry has "imposed itself" top-down on Australian society. This is such a superficial view, and society has influenced the funeral industry more than it has influenced society. Social relationships like this are not so one-directional as Larkins would have. Furthermore there is no support for many of these statements. He does not provide evidence or reasoning and leaves claims unsubstantiated.
As much as Larkins tries to describe the industry he fails due to his strong bias. He does not present an accurate image of the industry or even of how funeral work. The back of the book says how it "dispels popular myths" but unfortunately it does the opposite. Anyone who has worked in the industry would realise this book is disappointingly inaccurate and prejudice.
This would not be an issue in or of itself, many books are bias against the funeral industry. However Larkins attempts to be descriptive and not do an expose style of book. Unfortunately this does not work with his overtly prejudice tone and style. If he had just picked a side, expose or descriptive, it would have been better.
In the end while the book does try it fails on most counts. It is not an accurate depiction of the industry or well argued. Plus he focuses so much on the cost of a funeral he overlooks to quality and personal aspects (which is quite ironic as this is his criticism of the funeral industry . If a second year university student submitted this it would be rejected as it shows no critical thinking at all. Having said that it is an essential read for anyone interested in the funeral industry. I would actually recommend this as a good first step for others to learn about the funeral industry. Just remember not to take it at face value.
Also, there is nothing in here the 'death-care' industry would not want the public to know.
The book opens with Larkins talking about the recent sudden death of a good friend. He describes the funeral as a standard affair, that most people would have been to one very similar. Then he talkes of the how the wife "had found the whole funeral experience to be deeply dissatisfying" (Larkins, 2007, p.ix). The reasons he gives for why the wife felt this way can be summarised as below:
The first point is how she had no time with the body at the hospital. She was told an undertaker would need to be contacted and the body was moved to the hospital mortuary. He explains that she "never had a chance to spend with Geoff's body" (Larkins, 2007, p.x).
I found this an odd issue, on one hand it is perfectly understandable. That she wanted to spend time with the body but could not. Yet on the other hand even she and Larkins concede that the hospital might need beds. I do not know much about hospital procedure, but either way this is an issue more with the hospital and society's need to distance death, not with the funeral industry.
The second point is with the funeral preparations, here it is two fold, the pushing of sales and the lack of choice. Larkins says how the funeral home "suggested that the body be embalmed" which she agreed to (Larkins, 2007, p.x). From their point of view the funeral home encouraged sales of certain things that she or the deceased did not really want or need. Not only the embalming, but also the viewing (which she said no to). The other issue was in the lack of choice and variability. She had wanted a cardboard coffin but they were more expensive, and she had wanted him buried under a tree but found it expensive and "not only was it not a native, it wasn't even really a tree - it was an exotic sapling" (Larkins, 2007, p.x-xi).
The problem raised of the additional extras is a valid one, but not a common one. Funeral homes are a business, they want additional extras on a sale. Yet the majority go for happy customers, not being pushy but providing what people actually want. This has a higher chance for return sales and repeat business. As for the issue with the lack of choice, she had an option for a cardboard coffin but chose not to due to price. She also had a choice of burial under a tree, it was expensive and not native sure, but being a sapling is not a problem. It will grow into a tree, and grown trees tend to be taken already as they are quite old. Clearly the different options were there, but she chose not to take them either due to price or specific taste or both.
The next point was price, this was a very brief point but is very significant as the book goes on. The wife said how "she knew that he would have been appalled at the cost of the funeral" (Larkins, 2007, p.xi). The wife and the deceased had wanted a simple funeral, but ended up walking away with a $15,496.90 bill, including the grave (Larkins, 2007, p.xi).
To me this was an odd issue, but became so important as the book went on. Actually, this bill is towards the higher end, but not in the unreasonable category. Considering how specific a funeral she wanted, buried under a native and full grown tree and so on. I suspect there was more on the funeral which Larkins does not go into. Such as a mourning car or two, the type of coffin, if it was a two-part service or one-part service, the catering and so on. Each little extra adds to the overall bill quite quickly. The grave would have been expensive, to buy a new single grave easily costs a few thousand just for that. Overall I find this bill a bit high but not outrageous or "appalling" as they put it.
The final point was control, how she felt there was little control over the funeral process. That the process just took over, limiting choices and directing her to a certain funeral. Again, I found this is a rather odd point. At every step Larkins said how she had chosen certain things, such as a wood coffin over a cardboard one due to price. To spend two pages talking about the various options and choices she had and then to say how little control she felt was striking.
Yet it is rather understandable, perhaps not 'reasonable' but I certainly see how and why she felt this way. The choices were limited to certain ones, the body was quickly and quietly moved to the hospital mortuary, and she had no involvement in the actual funeral. All she did was pick things then the undertakers et about enacting them. Thus one could see how her feeling of control and participation was diminished or removed.
This short introduction is a vital part of the book as it is the very reason and direction of the book. Larkins explains how this story prompted him to talk with others, who all recanted similar stories. He then set out to explore the law side of funerals, being a member of the legal profession this was his framework. But this led to an "investigation of the practices of funeral directors". Which then "led to querying all aspects of the 'death care' industry" (Larkins, 2007, p.xi-xii).
Unfortunately Larkins takes this perspective and twists it into a bias. The book strongly focuses on the DIY funeral and how to avoid paying 'too much' to the undertakers.
Chapter 1 - Death down-under
The next chapter of the book is a short history of funerals in Australia. I understand this book is written for the public and history is not it's focus, thus it would skip or simplify a lot. But it takes this too far in some regards. Highlighting what suits it and avoiding complexities which would develop a richer understanding.
A big omission on his part is significance of WWI. As Jalland illustrates in her book, 'Changing ways of death in twentieth-century Australia' (2006), WWI had a huge impact on the industry. One which is still felt to this day decades later. Unfortunately Larkins gives this but a simple paragraph, a mear half page. More importantly Larkins misses the point here. This is essentially his argument as he lays it out:
P1. - Victorian period saw a growth in the lavish funeral.
P2. - Undertakers sprung up to provide this lavish funeral, previously an uncommon occupation.
P3. - The 'funeral trade' begane to experience image issues, "resulting from the connotations of making money from death" (Larkins, 2007, p.5).
P4. - After WWI the lavish funeral faded away and seemed inappropriate.
P5. - Undertakers had "adopted a sophisticated public relations initiative aimed at maintaining the ground they had gained in the Victorian era" (Larkins, 2007, p.5).
P6. - Undertakers wanted to get consolidate power, they did so with unexpected assistance:
--> Decline in religion left a "vacuum that the funeral directors were able to fill"
--> Medical advances meant sick lived longer and moved from the home to the hospital and nursing home, thus removing death from the home.
He then uses this reasoning (a word I use loosely) to explain why the funeral industry grew in twentieth century Australia, and why it has become the large industry we know today. I however find this argument rather flawed and simplistically one-sided.
Firstly it is very one-sided. According to Larkins the funeral industry is controlling and directing of society. Yet this is not the case at all, even his own argument questions this notion. He states at P1 and P2 how the Victorian era saw an increase in the lavish funeral and thus undertakers arose. Here he is clearly demonstrating how society had influence on the undertakers. According to him social changes created the job and the industry. To then say the industry dictates society is rather inconsistent. Furthermore, the few decent studies there are all show how the influence does not work as he concludes. If anything society has more influence on the industry than the industry has on society.
I was surprised and disappointed to find Larkins gloss over the WWI influence. Not only was it incredibly important and influential, but the changes were to do with mourning. The changes were social attitudes to death and funerals, supposedly this is one of Larkins main concerns. But he ignores the social changes during and after WWI, and how these directly shaped funerals and the funeral industry. It is no coincidence Jalland spends hundreds of pages looking into attitudes during this period and how it impacted the industry.
Larkins history looks at InvoCare, not surprisingly. This history of his, about how InvoCare came to be is fairly accurate as I can work out. However it is incredibly bias and judgemental. He talks of the American companies as "invaders" using quite agressive language, calling the Australian industry a "prime target", reffering to the American companies as "foreign raiders" and so on. His language comes across as almost racist and socialist in some ways. As he employs such judgemental language and style for describing these companies. Yet his only reasons are that they are foreign and businesses. I would be more understanding of his language if he had an actual reason. But simply their nationality and the fact they are companies is not enough.
As we end chapter one we realise how dismal a view Larkins has of the industry. A rather depressing and almost agressive view in fact. Judging the funeral industry and blaming them for the rise in funeral costs. But one line struck me as rather left field "because of their smal size, babies seem to be particularly vulnerable to abuse" (Larkins, 2007, p.10). This line has nothing to do with the history or changes of the funeral industry. It is just inflammatory and provocative for no real reason.
Although I have two good things to say about this chapter. Firstly at least Larkins talks of the Aboriginal funeral, something many would overlook as part of the Australian funeral history. I have little knowledge of Aboriginal funerals, past or present, so I cannot comment on how accurate this is. Secondly he concludes the industry needs reform. While not exactly on topic for the chapter it is not inaccurate. The industry is in need of change and reform, but not from the outside as Larkins implies.
One final amusing note, Larkins states how shoes like 'Six Feet Under' have "an irreverent and myth-busting take on the industry as seen from the inside" (Larkins, 2007, p.11). To me this show was nothing like the industry, at least as I find it in Australia. The attitudes and procedures in the show are build more myths than they bust. What is shown is more popular perception than honest accuracy. To think this show is accurate and applicable to the Australian industry only indicates how little actual involvement Larkins has with the funeral industry.
Chapter 2 - The tricks of the trade
In this chapter Larkins looks at the 'tricks of the trade', how the funeral industry is getting all it can from the unsuspecting and vulnerable mourners. The first thing which struck me was quite early in the chapter, within the first paragraph actually. Larkins has an example of a NSW parliament enquiry into the funeral industry which "reported that one customer had walked into a funeral directors office, asking for a basic funeral (normally costing $5,000). By the time he walked out he had signed up for an elaborate funeral with all the trimmings, and was handed a bill to match - $9,500" (Larkins, 2007, p.12).
He uses this to set up the atmosphere of how the funeral industry is basically taking advantage of vulnerable people. But this example falls appart on closer examination, and in turn questions his presumption. Firstly, which inquiry was this? He never sources or references this example, nor does he state what the findings were. For all we know the findings could have been very positive of the industry. Also, this is one example of one customer, qualitative data is useful for exploring an exact point or concept or perception. Not for drawing a broad conclusion of a whole industry. Finally, how did they know a 'basic' funeral costs $5,000 and to go from this to $9,500 is not hard or far. A few simple extras could easily make the difference. Plus I would hardly call a $9,500 funeral 'elaborate', especially when in the introduction he states the friends funeral cost over $15,000.
There is just so much wrong with this paragraph that I find myself struggling to summarise everything so wrong with it. Right down to the fact that it's not only wrong, it's also pointless. What relevance does this have to the overall argument or story? We never know because it just hangs here, not tied to anything that follows. Larkins could have saved space by doing away with this part, and at the same time made his argument tighter. To me it was an indicator that Larkins was going for shock and atmosphere rather than explanation and analysis.
Again I have another issue with the first page of this chapter. he states how "traditionally funeral directors viewed themselves as service providers who charged a fee for their service" but this all changed when the "US corporations arrived in Australia" (Larkins, 2007, p.12). To believe this is to disregards the previous chapter. His argument and description in Chapter 1 described how the funeral industry was "sophisticated" and hunting profit. All in before WWI, decades before the 1990's arrival of the US companies. To say that it was the US influence which turned undertakers from service providers to companies just does not make sense. Quite simply it is inconsistent with everything said up to this point. Funeral homes were businesses long before the Americans arrived.
Also, Larkins wrongly argues 'merchandising' and 'value-adding' were brought over by the American companies. Both of these concepts were strong in the industry well before the 1990s. Either way, he only explores these two concepts. In my essays on the modernity of the funeral industry I identify and apply more than eight similar concepts. many of which are actually more important than, or explain, these two. Things like dedifferentiation of consumption or theming are just as important (if not more so) and work with his argument better. Don't forget, I wrote those essays in my own time as part of a blog. He is a trained professional who wrote a book. Yet I explore more concepts than he did.
But my main issue is that he looks at both concepts as negatives. How 'value-adding' and merchandising are bad for mourners and only producing profit for funeral homes. Which is an unfortunately a simple and one sided view. Neither concepts or actions are bad in and of themselves. In fact one could argue many positives come from both. Take 'value-adding' for example, the crematoriums are exploring memorial plaques more and more. Yes, it gives them profit and costs mourners a fair amount. But, it also gives a permanent and tangible place for people to mourn and visit. By getting more profits crematoriums are providing more and better ways to mourn and remember the deceased. To see it as a purely negative thing is short-sighted.
We finally reach the second page of this chapter. Here he states how the coffin is the "big ticket item" and can have a markup of 200% to 500% (Larkins, 2007, p.13). From my own experience and research coffins do have a big markup, but so do many products. Our clothes and food often have a higher markup. Either way, this markup is quite reasonable and fair. There are a lot of costs for funeral companies, things they cannot always directly charge for but still have to pay. For example if the transfer crew is delayed, that is employee wages, insurance, fuel, and more. So they use the inflated coffin costs to cover this. In many ways funeral homes survive off the inflated coffin costs. Also, when comparing this to overall profit we get a very different story. Most small funeral homes are just breaking even. One funeral home owner told me they took home $25,000 that year. There is a lot of money in the funeral industry, but not a lot of profit. The charity work of funeral homes should also be noted. Most funeral companies spend a huge portion of their budget and time on various things to help the community. For example some run bus serviceces for the elderly and others who need it, others help local sport teams, many assist the poor, and so on. One funeral manager/owner said how their charity work was another whole business. Some funeral homes have a fulltime staff member who just organises community work and community events.
Larkins also talks about the dominant and submissive relationship between the undertaker and mourner. How the mourner is "inexperienced and vulnerable so it comes as no surprise that such a well-rehearsed presentation is often effective in securing sales of expensive coffins" (Larkins, 2007, p.15). Throughout this chapter he discusses how staff have extensive training on how to sell and upsell the mourner. That also the mourner is vulnerable; emotional and unexperienced with this process. Thus it combines to the funeral homes advantage.
Again, this is not exactly accurate of many instances. The mourner is not always vulnerable, and in many cases the funeral home is not exploitative. The way Larkins describes this relationship is almost predatory and certainly an object and subject dynamic. The funeral company is the subject, agency and action rests with them. While the mourner is the object, the thing of desire for the funeral home that does not so much do as is consumed and directed. Ok, even if we do take this as true for a moment, it is still not so simple. The object still has pull and power over the subject, sometimes even more than the subject has on the object. This is because the object is so desired, so wanted, by the subject. The funeral home really wants the mourner, it needs the mourner to survive. But the mourner does not need the funeral home and can just go elsewhere.
Next Larkins discusses ways to avoid certain costs, a motif of this book. For example he says how funeral homes charge over $200 for a memorial book but one can get a similar thing for under $10 at a newsagent. This is again an oversimplification, another motif of this book. The one the funeral home provides is designed for a funeral, purpose built. One might think any book will do, but some work much better than others. The funeral home memorial book is designed to look nice and be easy to sign. It is often spread over several places on the funeral, then combined into one book at the end by the staff. This means mourners can sign in several places at once, shortening queues and covering multiple entries. An ordinary pre-bound book from a newsagent will work, but not as well as an actual memorial book.
Overall this chapter does make some good points. It also does cover some actual issues within the industry (however rare or common they are). It also explains funeral costs decently, and what can be happening. However I find way too much bias to take this chapter as anything useful or reasonable. Larkins focuses so much on what suits him, exaggerating or oversimplifying certain things, then avoids others aspects completely. He does not bother to explain why the funeral homes have these markups, or what people are often paying for is a lot more complex than it appears. As someone said "there's no such thing as 'just' a transfer" as there is so much constantly at play behind the scenes. The only possible reasoning he gives is that funeral homes are profit hungry. But then he fails to look at overall profit margins of many companies or even at how much many owners earn per year.
Chapter 3 - Cash, credit card or cheque
He starts this chapter with another discussion of parliament inquiry into the industry. At least this time he cites the inquiry, making it possible for others to look it up and get further information. Except this is also just as judgmental and emotional with its language. The very first line of the chapter is "the cost of funerals has perturbed both the New South Wales and Victorian parliaments" and how cost of the funeral was one of the biggest concerns raised (Larkins, 2007, p.27). This is such an emotional and almost accusatory statement.
Next he goes on the talk about cost and pricing in the industry and how companies have done certain things to reduce costs. For example the 'American' companies used a warhorse system for processing the dead. That these 'American' companies would take the dead to one big center and process them there, then ship them back out to the funerals. Essentially this is what InvoCare still does, they have three main 'processing' places in Sydney and this is where they do all the prep work. Personally I do not see this as a bad thing really. I've seen how InvoCare use it to keep quality up and costs down. But either way, it is not an 'American' thing. Other companies have been doing this for a long time. For example WNBull only processed or dealt with bodies in Newtown. Despite the fact that it had an office at Parramatta and North Sydney. All the bodies went to the one location and the one mortuary for processing. So even this relatively small and completely Australian company was using this method. To say it was an American influence is not accurate. The Americans might have done it on a bigger scale, but they certainly didn't introduce it to Australia or invent the system.
There is a minor line in this chapter, not very important but so odd. Larkins says how bodies were now being held at central locations "where corpses could be carried in bulk from the coolroom to the communal mortuary on a forklift" (Larkins, 2007, p.28). Firstly, a funeral home would not use a forklift. They use automatic trolleys or manual trolleys. A forklift would not fit or be practical at all. Even if he meant it metophorically or sympblically it is inaccurate of how things are done of the attitudes behind the scenes. Secondly, almost all mortuaries are communal, it only makes sense. It is not a surgical room where one person is dealt with at a time. It is a workplace, with staff and bodies. It is an unimportant sentence, but so eloquently illustrates Larkins lack of practical knowledge or involvement.
One issue Larkins does raise is the rising price of a funeral. How funeral costs have risen ahead of the Consumer Price index, that between 2000 and 2005 average costs went up by 14% (Larkins, 200, p.28-29). This is an actual issue for the industry and the mourner. Many (like Larkins) only look at it from the mourners perspective. They see this as the funeral industry charging too much and making too much off the poor vulnerable mourner. However it is not the whole story, it also hurts the funeral industry. Many argue profits are not going up, some have even argued that as costs have gone up profits have gone down.
In this instance Larkins states funeral homes explain the price rise because of an increase in viewings. That mourners want more viewings which increases the price. Larkins then goes on to say how this is because viewings are "being aggressively promoted" by the industry (Larkins, 2007, p.29). Again he resorts to oversimplification, things are not so one sided as he would have us think. A quick look at the history of funerals in Australia shows how the funeral industry follows society more than it directs society. After WWI the funeral became simpler and private. But in the 1980s and on this has started to change. Funeral are becoming more public, and open grieving is becoming more encouraged. It makes perfect sense that viewings would become more popular from the 1980s onwards. In other words the funeral industry is marketing viewings because society wants them, the funeral industry aims to provide the desires of society, not to shape them.
He then goes on the explain the costs and billing system of the funeral industry and various minor ways to avoid extra charges. In most cases his 'extra charges' are quite reasonable. For example, he says how many funeral home charge an extra fee if the transfer of the deceased is over 10km. Is this so unreasonable? The funeral home is not just paying for the fuel, they pay for the staff wage, insurance (on the staff and car), maintenance of the car, and much more. When you think about it 10km is quite a reasonable distance, it is only fair to charge a little extra for going so far. It does cost the company more and so they need to recover this cost somehow. But there are also many little costs involved which the funeral home cannot directly charge for, such as a body bag, gloves, disinfectant and so on. Another example is if a hospital delays staff, RPA would often delay staff by an hour. This is not the family's fault, so to charge them directly is not quite right. Instead the cost is recovered over several funerals.
At the end of the day a funeral company is just that, a company, it has staff and bills to pay. Unless you are willing to work fulltime for free you shouldn't expect others to do so. Funeral staff need to pay rent and eat like anyone else. So funeral companies need to charge to pay them, and to survive, not entirely unreasonable.
In the section 'Burial and cremation costs' Larkins states that "cemeteries in the inner suburbs of Australian capital cities are all but full" (Larkins, 2007, p.31). I cannot speak for the other cities, but I know Sydney still has space in most inner-cemeteries. Waverley has space, Eastern Suburbs has space, Macquarie Park just opened a whole new section in 2010. This is such a sweeping statement, and one which is quickly disproven with only slight inquiry.
A suggestion made is that country graves are a better alternative to the city. Larkins then compares prices between some rural NSW cemeteries and Sydney city cemeteries. Naturally the city ones are more costly, but he misses the point of the cemetery and grave. Most people like to visit the grave, or at least think of it as close to home. Travelling a few hours out of the city is not practical for many (especially the elderly) and not as nice. This chapter has such a focus on price and cheap funerals, yet he has no focus on quality or what the person actually wants. However I will discuss this in more detail later as it is such a big issue with the whole book that it deserves its own section.
Overall this chapter does have some useful information. But like the last chapter I find it difficult to use as there is little context or reason. Larkins does not elaborate on reasons for the prices other than 'they want money. Making it difficult to understand this complex topic properly. Furthermore the focus is completely on price, there is no talk of quality or what the person wants. Larkins at no point explains a way to get what you really desire or need, just how to save money. This is a serious and rather ironic issue with the book which I elaborate on later.
Chapter 4 - Boxed in
Here Larkins describes the difference between the coffin and casket. However Larkins calls caskets "American-style supersized coffins" (Larkins, 2007, p.45). Forgetting the fact that this design is quite old and common with Italians. I have seen more Italian caskets than American caskets in Australia.
Just after this Larkins talks about the coffin. how many think the wide part is for the shoulders, but it really sits around the chest area, below the shoulders. That this means the body is crammed in, unpleasantly so for viewings. This is flat out wrong, when I tell experienced undertakers this they just laugh, it is beyond silly and offensive to them. I will concede, in some cases a body is crammed in, for example where the grave is only so big but the body is 'oversize' (fat). These instances are quite rare, and coffins come in two main sizes anyway. The undertaker would simply select a bigger version of the coffin rather than squashing a body in. This is the same with small bodies, the undertaker will use a smaller coffin to make it look "more comfortable" as they told me. Either way, this assumption that "it's all very cramped" is less than accurate, despite the fact that Larkins speaks of it as truth (Larkins, 2007, p.46). Anyone with respectable experience or knowledge of the industry would know how untrue this is in most cases. Unfortunately about four chapters in and I would feel comfortable to exclude Larkins from this category.
In this chapter Larkins makes a minor statistical mistake. He says about 130,000 Australians die every year (Larkins, 2007, p.46). Yet this number is much higher, it was 143,500 deaths in 2010 (source). The number of anual deaths has been well over 130,000 per year since before this book was published. I know this is a bit pedantic, but it shows how Larkins just estimates to the point where it is basically guess work. Even when there is a statistic that is quite easy to find he instead just estimates, and is often quite in some cases such as this one.
Larkins also says how coffin manufacturers do not sell to the public. He states this is because the funeral homes have a strong interest in refusing to sell coffins to the public. Larkins even says that funeral homes might ostracise coffin manufactures who sold to the public. Simply this is not quite true and borders on slander. Certain companies like LifeArt do not sell to the public, but only because they are wholesale companies. LifeArt (and InvoCare who own it) have no issue with the public buying their own coffins privately, without the funeral director. But these companies do not have a pricing and delivery system in place for private customers. So few people buy coffins privately that it is simply not worth it for them. They do not refuse this because of any other reason. Furthermore many coffin makers would sell to the public, happily so. No funeral home would mind this or be unhappy with a coffin maker for doing so. Again, funeral homes would not mind the family buying and supplying their own coffin. They would however be worried about the quality of the coffin. If it fell appart on the funeral, damaged the hearse or was dangerous/impractical to hold and carry. All of these would make the funeral home very concerned and why they want to control the coffin quality by using approved coffins only.
Another complaint is the coffin markup, Larkins calls this markup "outrageous" and states that if coffins came from Ikea they would cost $90 (Larkins, 2007, p.47). This is becoming a somewhat tedious statement on his part. All premise and no point, no evidence or even reason. Larkins might complain of the high markup but makes no attempt to explain it, why it is so high or even exists. Nor does he compare it, when compared with other things this markup is actually quite reasonable. Most clothes we buy cost considerably less to make than we pay, a suit can easily have a 300% markup. In comparison to other goods the coffin does not have an "outrageous" markup.
To me Larkins has an attitude that the funeral home should be more a community service than a business. Which is rather unfair and simple minded. Funeral people need to make a living to, and do so by making profit. Most in the industry are paid relatively little, and it is hard work. To expect these people to just work fulltime, and put in so much effort, for nothing is unreasonable at best.
This section has some useful or informative advice. But again, unfortunately the information so so bias and superficial that it is unreliable. For example, the advice on building a coffin skips many important parts. Such as making sure the coffin does not damage the hearse and is comfortabel and safe to hold. He skips over key information or oversimplifies things to the point where everything falls into doubt.
Chapter 5 - Fenced in
This chapter is about cemeteries, as in who owns and runs them, how prices work and so on. As is now standard with this book the information is sometimes quite good, but often superficial or sweeping statements. So again, everything has to be questioned and doubted before it can be used or thought of as usable.
At one point Larkins says how cemetery owners and operators have essentially become property managers (Larkins, 2007, p.56). He says it as though it is new and bad, but both of these points are not true. Cemeteries were always managed as property, and it is a good way to keep the site running and in good order. Not only is it an old system, but it is good for mourners.
He has two very interesting points in this chapter. The first is the brothel moving close to a cemetery and the value of famous people. Naturally the value of these points is diluted by Larkins bias and generalisations. But at their core, stripped of all the reason Larkins gives them they are both very interesting and telling concepts. The brothel trying to move close to a cemetery tells how we view cemeteries, and what we should and should not be doing in and around them. This point is rather ironic as many have the same views of the cemetery as the cemetery had of the brothel. The way we teach and act towards sex and death are very similar. The second point about the value of famous gaves is also rather interesting. Informative of the importance we see in the famous and telling of how we see the cemetery and the transference of properties. It is such a shame that Larkins strips these points of anything useful and wraps them up in such bias.
Larkins has such a romanticised image of the country industry. Describing the country funeral home and cemetery as almost like community charity organisations. While the city ones are profit hungry and slick salesmen. He even states a reason country cemeteries are so much cheaper is because the board is made up of volunteers who have a "genuine desire to serve their community" (Larkins, 2007, p.61). This is rather mean spirited and judgemental on his part. Many city cemetery boards are made up of volunteers who have genuin interest. The recent restructuring of the cemetery boards in Sydney is a good indication of this. Many were personally upset at not serving on a board anymore, and remember, they were not paid to do this job. To imply the city boards are just profit is rather unfair and mean to people who do this job for free and for good reason. The other issue is to blame this as the reason for the price difference is rather strange and I would say wrong. The city costs more as it has more costs, it has more staff to pay, it has more ground to maintain and so on. Larkins blames the city boards for the high prices, but then gives no reasoning or evidence.
There is a very good and important point in this chapter. That cemeteries are being used as a place for conservation, a sanctuary for native plants and animals. This is true and a rather important and new view of the cemetery. I would have liked Larkins to explore this more, the alternative view of the cemetery. But this is not the topic of the book, thus rather reasonable it is only a quick discussion.
Another good and important point is the ownership of a grave. Larkins explains how graves are not owned when bought, they are rented for a few years. This is rather significant for how many see ownership at cemeteries. But not something most cemeteries hide or shy away from. Many admit, or publicise how long a grave is owned for when buying one.
Chapter 6 - A burning question
This chapter is about cremations in Australia, from history to current practices. Larkins states that the crematorium reform "sprang out of the British funeral reform movement, which in turn was spurred along by the funeral excesses of the Victorian era" (Larkins, 2007, p.67). He then talks about several early cremations and how it use to have a very negative perception. Facing serious church opposition as it was seen as sacrilegious and only for the 'dirty' people (such as a Chinese leper). But then the movement caught on and cremations became more popular in the early twentieth century.
While this description of Larkins is not completely wrong, it is simplistic and overlooks the main reasons for cremation. He does not talk of WWI or social changes, simply stating it became more common in the 1900s as the reform movement grew. The influence of WWI was essential for cremation in Australia, there is no way around this. It was through changes in mourning and funeral attitudes which developed during the Great War that cremation was made possible and popular.
Another issue is that Larkins argument that cremation arose from the Victorian era makes no sense. This era say the "Beautiful Death" (something Larkins never talks about) and the "Good Christian Death" (something else Larkins never talks about). Both were about the beauty in the death and the funeral. I do not have the same or time to get into detail, but both concepts made way for the 'Beautiful Funeral' which was the elaborate and ornate celebratory funeral we think of for that period. The large black horses, the conductor uniform, the presentation of the body as 'sleeping', are all tied to the Beautiful Funeral. The thought of cremation is a direct and polar opposition to this. The Beautiful Funeral is all about presenting the body and death as a resting sleep, a peaceful transition into the next life. To burn the body, to destroy it in such a violent act defies everything the Beautiful Funeral is about. So to say cremation arose due to the Victorian era elaborate funeral is counterintuitive.
This image of the Beautiful Funeral is what opposed cremation for so long. Only after this image faded (as a result of the Great War's influence on mourning) was cremation made acceptable. It was these changes which made cremation acceptable, but also desirable. Hence why every crematorium was built shortly after WWI and often has a war memorial or two in its gardens. I will discuss the relationship between cremation and WWI and medicalisation (and also grieving) another time. But for now, Larkins skips the important part and incorrectly attributes it to other reasons. Reasons which actually do not make sense.
In the cremation process section Larkins does say he has found no evidence of misconduct (Larkins, 2007, p.71). At least this is consistent with my findings so far. Although he states how they have so many checks and balances so mistakes are not made. This is relatively true, in comparison to how many cremations are done very few mistakes of any sort occur. However I have found a couple of minor ones here and there, but in every case the crematorium has contacted the relevant family and informed them.
Larkins talks of how profit hungry the city cemeteries are, describing them as property developers out to make a sale (Larkins, 2007, p.56). But then he goes about talking of the hardship cremation has faced in the past, setting it up as the underdog to burial. He also talks of the crematorium operators as though they could do no wrong, a perfect system. By now one is forced into suspecting Larkins has a slight bias in favour of cremation over burial. Ignoring the mistakes or issues of cremation but highlighting the shortcomings of burials.
He fails to point out that cremation is a rather systematic process, a very institutional practice. Cremation arises directly from a move to the institution and a distancing of death, so cremation itself is very institutionalised and all aspects of death are minimised. Which is not to everyone's taste, not that Larkins would describe it as such anyway.
There is an odd mistake in this chapter. Larkins says how new pacemakers are no longer removed as the new batteries do not explode in the crematorium. Previous pacemakers use to explode, but not the new ones. Regardless of the age of the pacemaker, the crematorium insists it is removed even to this day. Nobody takes the chance, no batteries are allowed in the cremator, ever.
Also, the statistics he gives for cremators is rather odd. I have found each cremator and company has wildly different statistics. For example some take over an hour to cremate a body, others only take under 40 minutes. It is nice that he gives some numbers for people to get a better understanding and feel for the process. But one must not rely on these numbers as they differ for each crematorium.
Chapter 7 - Vigiles, viewings and embalming
This chapter is about viewings, embalming and vigils. Larkins explains how vigils are a long traditional part of Australian culture. But how embalming and viewing is a new phenomenon.
As he explains, before the 1900s the body would have been kept at home and a vigil would have been held there. This vigil always included the direct involvement of those close to the deceased. But that after the medicalisation of death this tradition faded as the funeral industry grew (Larkins, 2007, p.77-78). He goes on to say how funeral directors "will invariably recommend that you hold a viewing" (Larkins, 2007, p.79). That viewings came to Australia from America, that the viewing "emerged as a commercial opportunity" (Larkins, 2007, p.80). This is all again rather judgemental and simplistic.
Larkins sees the viewing and vigil as two different and separate things. But really, the viewing is a form of vigil done outside the home and domestic setting. The vigil is impractical and no longer what people desire in our modern society. The viewing is the evolution, the modern equivalent They are not two different things, but two stages of the same thing over time.
Again, Larkins blames the 'foreign' Americans for introducing a cold profit culture to the funeral industry. Describing viewings as a foreign notion for undertakers to make more money. I genuinely begin to grow tired of explaining why this is so wrong. Viewings are not just an American invention forced upon us. They are an Australian evolution as a response to changes in Australian culture after WWI. Hence the reason they arose before the 1980s to 1990s American arrival. But this would just be inconvenient coincidence for Larkins and should thus be dismissed. Viewings are the Australian response to passing funerals to the undertakers. Generally the public does not want direct involvement in death or funerals, so they let the funeral home take care of this. But they still might want to see the body, to say farewells, thus the funeral home provides a viewing to do so. It is not profit seeking for the funeral company, it is them providing the service their customers want. Companies do not force products upon people, they offer what people want. It is emphasised how the undertakers have an "interest" in encouraging viewings (Larkins, 2007, p.81). But again, the undertaker is simply responding to what the mourner wants. Viewings are currently growing as funeral practices and attitudes change, not because companies are pushing them.
Next we get a series of 'horror' stories about viewings. About how the undertaker fixed up the body in a way the family did not appreciate. One woman who died of breast cancer had her missing breast magically appear for the viewing (Larkins, 2007, p.81). This complaint is of how the undertaker forced what they thought 'appropriate' upon the situation. Another complaint is of how the deceased had an angry and unhappy expression on their face (Larkins, 2007, p.82). This complaint is of how unsuitable the deceased was, how the viewing displayed them unlike what they were actually like as a person.
Both complaints are rather odd and in some ways unreasonable. Not all undertakers change a body for a viewing and normally just 'clean it up' but do not do things like replace a missing breast. Having said that they do try and make the body look presentable and 'at peace'. For many undertakers they would want to fix something like this, but the family could have told them what they wanted. It could have been avoided by describing to the arranger the style of viewing they were after. A good arranger will make sure the family gets the right viewing. I found the other complaint even rather unreasonable. Sometimes a face is hard to manipulate, to 'fix' and change. Perhaps the undertakers did all they could, but the face was set like that. To blame the viewing (and to some extend the funeral home) is not reasonable in the second example.
Larkins laments that viewings are often more about style and presentation than feeling and relation to the deceased (Larkins, 2007, p.82). But this is exactly what many want, they want the deceased to look "right" or "nice" for the viewing. It is unfair and rude for Larkins to label this as wrong. To judge the desires of others, to say what they should really focus on.
When it comes to embalming Larkins has no issue or hesitation with calling it "an invasive procedure and its prime purpose is simple to make the dead look more pleasing" (Larkins, 2007, p.83). Yes, it is a medical procedure, and is somewhat invasive. But there is a lot more to it than presentation. It is about preservation, in fact this is the very foundation for embalming. Embalming was around in various forms for a long time, but really became refined and took off during the American Civil War. The aim was to preserve dead soldiers so they could be sent home for a proper funeral. He goes on to say "these days embalming for everyday preservation purposes is only used in situations where refrigeration is not available. If a place like a city morgue wants to preserve a body, it simply freezes it" (Larkins, 2007, p.83).
This is not so accurate, embalming is used in many cases to preserve and 'clean' a body. All bodies are embalmed before being sent overseas. This preserves it without refrigeration but it also removes most possible contaminants. Embalming is about preservation, as in keeping the body in good order and making it hygienic. Freezing a body is also not a perfect way to preserve it. Most places will keep a body in a fridge, not freezer, as it keeps the body preserved and allows people to work on it. Plus freezing bodies can cause damage to it, it also takes space, something the funeral and medical industries are seriously lacking for body storage. Furthermore bodies do not remain perfect in the fridge or freezer. Mould and fungus grows on the body, and the body will actually mummify if there for too long. This fungus growth is an issue medical fridges and freezers are constantly dealing with.
I will concede, embalming now has a lot of presentation in it, making the body look 'asleep'. Larkins is not strictly wrong, he just over emphasises and over generalises this topic. For example, in describing the procedure he is quite vivide and over the top, most notably he says how "blood gushes out" (Larkins, 2007, p.85). As interesting as this sounds it is not the case. Without the heart pumping blood has little pressure to it, so blood will not 'gush' so much as 'leak' out. Also, he says how "over0sized cotton buds are pushed up the nose and inside the mouth to clean them out" (Larkins, 2007, p.85). He might find this disappointing or disturbing, but this is the standard procedure for all bodies, embalmed or not. Bodies can 'purge' (throw up via the mouth and/or nose) so these orifices are cleaned and blocked. Many of the 'bad' things he describes are simple and standard procedures done to all bodies, embalmed or not.
Chapter 8 - Ethics cultures and the funeral industry
This chapter opens with a discussion on how cemeteries are representative of population. Here is a really good point and way to see the cemetery. It is a wonderful idea of how the cemetery could be used to study society, to show demographic and attitude changes as well as different tastes and styles over time. But no, maybe because Larkins and I have very different perspectives, but to me he missed the point.
He focuses on how migrants after WWII wanted above ground style burial. That to "Anglo-Australian, above-ground burial seemed like a very unsavoury option, the attitude of authorities was uncompromising (Larkins, 2007, p.89). I found this an odd statement, considering Waverley alone has vaults dating back to the 1800s. The idea of above ground burial cannot have been too foreign or negative concept for the 'Anglo-Australians'. I have no evidence for or against this, I simply find it strange.
According to the book it was not until the 1990s before above ground burials were allowed. Unfortunately Larkins offers his own judgemental view of this, saying that "Australia is a multicultural society and it was discriminatory to deprive people of the opportunity to spend a small fortune on placing their dead" (Larkins, 2007, p.90). Larkins is no longer bias, he has moved into a judgmental framework. He is evaluating and pronouncing what desires of the mourner is right or wrong. Larkins not only judges and condemns the industry, he does this to anyone who wants to mourn in a way he does not approve of.
Larkins goes on to argue how this "heralded the start of a new commercial age for cemetery management" and how "almost immediately, multi-story crypts started appearing in cemeteries all over Australia" (Larkins, 2007, p.90). This is rather untrue, as anyone can see at a local cemetery. Crypts, vaults and mausoleums are not very common. They are incredibly expensive to build and maintain for all involved and overall not very cost effective. Many cemeteries in Sydney do not have a mausoleum at all and have just a few vaults/crypts.
Furthermore, I feel as though Larkins is mixing up his terms here. The first step to an argument is to qualify the language and terminology. But here I think Larkins is often saying 'vault' or 'above-ground' when he means mausoleum. For example, the previous quote he talks of how "multistory crypts" started to popup. While crypts can have multiple levels they are generally small in size and each building is separate and owned by one family. Plus crypts are rather old, dating back to the 1800s and older. In fact I have not found many crypts built in the 1900s or later, I have found none built in the 2000s. So for Larkins to say they were "appearing" all over Australia after the 1990s is a bit strange. Instead I think he is talking about 'mausoleums' or 'vaults'. Both of which are multiple story and did grow after the 1990s. Some might think this is inconsequential, that he might have made one mistake, or not defined his term properly but that this has no influence on the argument or statement. Yet it is exactly that, this mistake or lack or qualification completely changes his argument. It also draws into question the use of his other terminology. For a trained legal professional not to understand the importance in qualifying his wording is not acceptable. This is expected of undergrad university students, let along graduates.
He continues to paint the funeral director as profit hungry and callous. This is done with his discussion of how a 2005 Victorian parliament inquiry found Buddhist were being mistreated. That funeral directors "took advantage" of their beliefs to make more money or were generally insensitive to them (Larkins, 2007, p.91-92). I find this rather strange, the funeral industry relies so heavily on word of mouth for advertising. A few bad words about a funeral home can do so much damage. Most funeral homes would avoid being rude or taking advantage or any group. It's simply bad business and unsustainable practice for them. Furthermore, if this group had such issue they could build a relationship with one specific funeral home, and train them in the customs. A funeral home would love this as it gives them priority and prestige with that market. Maybe the 'shabby' conduct was only in a few isolated cases, or this group had not sought another funeral home despite the mistreatment.
Larkins argues that many small groups are mistreated or overlooked by the industry as they are not "big enough... to wield any clout" (Larkins, 2007, p.92). Again, most funeral homes do not judge any group, small or large, and would be more than willing to 'learn' their customs as it would give them an edge in that market.
But more importantly, the funeral industry is not exactly high paying and the work is not easy. Undertaker work all hours, the job invades their weekends, their nights. In forums focusing on undertakers some will write posts on how to deal with the job invading their personal life so much. It is not a job for many of them. They tend to describe it as "a calling", admitting it sounds corny but is how they feel. Not in a spiritual way, but in a personal way. For Larkins to constantly describe them as profit seekers without regard for mourners or dead is both inaccurate and insensitive.
Towards the end of the chapter Larkins talks about religious groups and the changes they pushed for. While most are legitimate and reasonable, I can see why the government was hesitant about others. For example, reusable coffins. The law is hesitant about reusable coffins as they might pose a health risk or degrade over time. It is not unreasonable from their point of view. Many laws are arbitrary and sweeping, but they do so as to include all the little exceptions is unreasonable. Think of the drinking age, a day before 18 it is illegal to drink. But a day after it is perfectly legal, does one day make so much difference for the person? No, but the law needs to draw a line somewhere as arbitrary as it often is. Another example is of wanting to take the body out of a coffin before the funeral. The Health Department is hesitant on this not because it is mean and insensitive, but because it is concerned about health issues. It limits who can remove a body from a body bag and where to protect the people doing it. To try and make sure they are trained people with the right protective equipment. Again, it is arbitrary and often not a health issue, but the law needs to cover those rare exceptions just in case. One would think a legal professional such as Larkins would realise or sympathise with this.
In the final part of this chapter Larkins reasons that because groups like the Jews have been conducting funerals without undertakers that the practice of DIY funerals is established. What he fails to note is these groups have qualified or experienced people, take the Jewish community for example. Chevra Kadisha is in many ways a funeral home like any other. They have their own transfer van, herse, mortuary and more. The people working there are experienced, they do it regularly. To compare this to a DIY funeral is rather insulting to them, they are as valid a part of the funeral industry as any other funeral home. Would we consider a Catholic funeral home a DIY style operation?
He ends the chapter by saying how the funeral industry "gives their best service to the biggest spenders" (Larkins, 2007, p.95). This only indicates how little time Larkins spent talking with those in the industry. Funeral homes (and other companies) might put more money into appealing to big spenders. It only makes sense as the big spenders have bigger returns. But at the end of the day all funeral companies would treat any group or individual as their "best" client. When actually talking to funeral homes and staff I find they have a strong pride in providing their "best" to even the poorest of people. Which I have also witnessed first hand. The charity funerals they do get as much dedication and passion from staff as the lavish high-end funerals. I end this chapter knowing why a few in the industry were personally offended by this book.
Chapter 9 - the changing landscape
This chapter is focused on the environmental impact of the funeral industry. It is true, this industry does have a rather impressive footprint, but things are not so easy to change. Larkins is very into the recyclable cardboard coffin idea, but this is not cheap as it uses high quality and expensive materials. So this coffin is out of the budget for many people. Plus some do not like how it looks or feels, personal taste is important. It is hard to disregard hundreds of years of using wooden coffins so easily.
As Larkins states, the Australian consumer is becoming concerned with the environment, which is seen in other industries such as automotive. But what Larkins fails to point out is that many people do not what what is considered 'green' for a funeral. To be buried naked in a field in a potato sack would be the most environmentally friendly option. Yet this is not to everyones liking, and it is not unreasonable for people to not like this. We have hundreds of years of tradition and attitude, to disregard it all is not practical. There are other 'green' alternatives, such as cardboard or whicker coffins, but they are not popular for the same reasons.
For Larkins the 'non-environmental' graves and memorialisation are all "extravagant" and "private" (Larkins, 2007, p.99). To him all which deviate from the 'green' and communal options are unnecessary indulgents. This is seen with his labeling current practices as "extravagant" but also with the reasons he gives for these practices. He gives three reasons; the first is cultural "some cultures do their memorialisation on a grand scale... it will no doubt stay that way until environmental imperatives dictate otherwise" (Larkins, 2007, p.99). The second is "the keeping-up-with-the-Jones factos" that people do not want to be seen as "skimping on the grave" and how looking at cemeteries is a good display of this (Larkins, 2007, p.99). The third reason is because some people "simply want to leave a mark on the world" (Larkins, 2007, p.99).
There are two different reasons why these statements are questionable at best. That they are over simplified and resort to very superficial or basic reasoning. And that they have no support or evidence at all. I primarily focus on the first two reasons to explain this as the third reason falls into both traps. It has no support what so ever and is such a generalisation that it is unusable in any reasonable argument.
The first reason, the culture, is not such a good one. For Larkins culture will be changed by the environment in time, again resorting to his one-direction relationships. Things are not this simple, environment influences culture, but culture can ignore or influence environment. In previous chapters he talks of how grave styles have changed over time as culture has changed, so the current style of grave is not fixed, not ridged as he now argues. Nor have these past cultural changes been focused on environment. Larkins is oversimplifying and generalising cultures to look at superficial and one-directional relationships. As a result his reasoning misses the complexity of the reality.
The second reason, to not appear cheap, is just as questionable. Many would have no issue with not appearing lavish for the grave. His statement that simply looking at cemeteries shows this makes no sense. There are many simple (or as he would say "cheap") graves as there are many elaborate ones. Walk around a cemetery and find many basic graves, a wooden cross, a plain gravestone, and so on. Grave are no so much 'elaborate' or 'extravagant' as cultural. Graves often display more about culture and aesthetic taste than elaborateness or extravagance. If you walk through a cemetery you would see this, how the graves of each culture are similar to each other and how one can draw distinct lines between culture of the graves based on appearance only. To say they are showing off, or that looking at a cemetery will indicate this, is rather strange and without reason. There is just as much, if not more, evidence to argue against this as there is to support it.
Larkins goes on to state how "we no longer need words carved into stone" as we "now leave behind a wealth of information, such as documents, photos and moving pictures". That the graves "are the people who simply can't let go; pursuing a fantast of eternal life" (Larkins, 2007, p.100). As usual Larkins fails to give any support for this argument, either in terms of evidence or reasoning. Unfortunately for Larkins this argument fails to cover the point and thus falls appart quite quickly.
For many the "wealth of information" we leave behind is not the same as a grave. It is a different thing all together. People want to visit a grave to remember the dead and the life they had together. They want not just a representation, but a physical and tangible thing. Something to hold onto, something to interact with. You can see this with placing of a stone on Jewish graves (which is the same idea as flowers on other graves). They are placing something, physically interacting and leaving something, to engage with the thought and memory of the person. Naturally Larkins overlooks this, forcing his view of how others should mourn onto the situation. Ironically just a short while earlier he condemned 'Anglo-Australians' for forcing their mourning views on others. He promotes the 'cyber memorials' people can leave, the internet memorial websites. But fails to note the very reason people want a grave is because it is physical. The cyber memorials he talks of are no different to the photos left behind, they are emotional representations, not physical ones. Is it so unreasonable that people want a physical representation and memory of the deceased?
Next we hear of the environmental short comings of cremation. How Australia's "practices remain well short of comparable nations" as Australia has lower pollution standards (Larkins, 2007, p.101-102). This might be true, and might be something that needs addressing. Even with his hyperbole of the concern for what is created it is still a decent point. Plus he does explain the various chemicals and pollutants that are created during cremation, which is good to know for some.
I find it no surprise that no crematorium would tell him their fuel bill. Not only is this private to them (it indicates how busy they are to competitors) but his methods and perspective are very off-putting to the industry. This is an industry which is worried about public perception as it relies so heavily on word of mouth. And it is so use to negative and incorrect accusations from people. Then along comes Larkins, asking fuel bills while condemning them for not being environmentally friendly. Even with my neutral views of the industry I find it hard to get into. Once you say "study" the companies tend to become hesitant. But I have found crematoriums to be the most open and supportive of a study. Maybe if Larkins had approached them with a different attitude he would have had a different outcome. To me it illustrates how he tried to engage with the funeral industry.
The final parts of this chapter are about alternative and environmentally friendly burial grounds. The things others would not think of or want but Larkins supports without question. For example, his idea of natural burial would require considerable space and is not practical for those living in cities. It is unfortunate, but simply impractical to set up a whole 'natural' gravesite. Also, carrying the coffin to the grave could be tricky. Carrying and lowering the coffin at the grave are two of the most dangerous things for an undertaker. Made worse is the ground is uneven or the distance to walk is considerable. Or the idea of vertical burials, I can only imagine how difficult it could be to lower a coffin like this. It would mean a whole new method of lowering for the industry and maybe even special tools. For many funeral homes operating on tight budget this would not be easy. Plus it means graves would have to be dug even deeper, which is more costly. The deeper the grave the more the cost. Also, graves can be dug to 'triple depth' so three bodies can be buried in one grave. The difference between this and vertical burial would be minor at most. But this would involve less digging and is a practice people already know and use.
Chapter 10 - Self arranged funerals
This is the final chapter I look at in this review, it is about the self arranged (or DIY) funeral. He emphasis that there "is no law that says you have to use a funeral director" and how it is perfectly legal to conduct a funeral yourself (Larkins, 2007, p.115). This is essentially true, and the biggest issue for the funeral industry. It is ironic that many in the industry (and myself) believe the problems Larkins complain of exist is due to this lack of regulation and requirement. Yet Larkins views it as an invitation to avoid the funeral director and the funeral industry. If there were more regulations about who could conduct a funeral, and how they operated, the industry might be better for it. There might be standardisation in pricing, a better set of ethics and so on. Many of the issues Larkins brings up could be countered by more regulation. But then the DIY funeral Larkins so supports would become more difficult.
It is quickly apparent that Larkins is not trying to improve the funeral industry or explain it. He is trying to encourage people to avoid it, to go with a DIY style funeral and become their own undertakers. The book has been building to this point, this is the pinacle of his argument. This chapter is spent looking at how to go about a DIY funeral, giving advice on possible issues. Which is unfortunate considering by now we have realised Larkins is not exactly experienced with the procedures of a funeral. He has demonstrated on several occasions a lack of knowledge or understanding of funeral procedure and mourning desires. Making Lakrins not exactly the desired expert for dispensing this type of advice or information. It is actually a good example of why ad hoc arguments are not necessarily a fallacy and can have some validity.
For the most part the advice is harmless, but when it comes to dealing with the body it is rather lacking. It does not detail anything and glosses over the important parts, the mentality and concepts of dealing with a dead body. He does not say how to cover up a cut and prevent blood leaking out, this is not the same as would be done for a living body. He does not say how to shave the hair, as any damage will not heal and it is slightly different to a living body. And so on, some important things are never brought up.
Most notably is is discussion of purging. In the section on 'leaks' he says "a now out-of-date procedure... involved pushing wadding into the unmentionable places' and reassures the reader that is is not done anymore as a nappy is now used in most cases (Larkins, 2007, p.124). It is clear he has such hesitation when discussing this, calling the orifices "unmentionable places" and avoiding their names. Thus he is unable to go into detail, or adequately explain the concepts and procedures. Skirting around them in favour of 'polite' language.
He refers to the purging and leaking as a "slim chance" as many "bodies do not leak at all" (Larkins, 2007, p.124 & 126). This is blatantly untrue, many bodies do leak and purge. When they do it can be anything from mild to serious. Purging can be quite unpleasant and messy, hence why mortuary staff clean and plug the mouth and nose with cotton wadding. This is done for every body, embalmed or not, as common procedure. It is as though Larkins is avoiding the 'messy stuff' in order to make a DIY funeral more appealing. To make it look less dirty or difficult. He was more than happy to overemphasise the negative aspects of embalming, but understates a similar practice here.
The rest of the chapter is spent discussing how to go about a sea burial. He does not explain the paperwork or procedure involved in cremation or burial. Paperwork is a massive part of the industry, most funeral homes have more office and administration staff than mortuary staff. Often twice to three times as many. The reason for this is because of how important paperwork is, and how much work is involved. Organising everything, making sure it is correct and so on. Preparing the body is the big thing in the mind of those outside the industry, but the papers are more important to those in the industry. It is just another indication of how Larkins has little to no understanding of the funeral industry and what it consideres important or why. He states that undertakers helped him with this book, but wanted to remain anonymous. I find myself questioning this, that perhaps undertakers had very little to no input or influence with this book.
Below are a few key themes I found through the book and what I thought of them.
The first concept I take issue with is his use of the term 'death-care industry'. It is not at all a good representation of the industry and how it works. Funeral homes do not care for death, they do not deal with or manage death in any way. Doctors have more of a relationship with death as they try to prevent it. Instead the funeral home deals with the funeral, they organise and prepare funeral services. The undertaker is very similar to an events co-ordinator, knowing florists, musicians, hire car companies, venues, and so on.
Larkins only uses this term a total of three times throughout the book. Taking a look at each together is rather telling: The first use is "US death-care giants cashed up their Australian brands and withdrew" (Larkins, 2007, p.7). The second use is "A look at history of funerals in Australia reveals that the death-care industry has imposed itself top-down on Australian society" (Larkins, 2007, p.10). The final use is "the basic tenant of the American death-care industry: 'Funeral directors don't sell - they help people buy" (Larkins, 2007, p.13).
Each time he uses this term is is an evocative way, to emphasise and convey a negative impression of the industry. On the other hand Larkins uses the term 'funeral industry' four times in the book. Each time is in a more analytical way. So basically he calls it a 'death-care industry' when he wants to provoke us and paint it a certain way. But he calls it a 'funeral industry' when he wants to analyse it.
Not only is 'death-care industry' is an inaccurate term, but he uses it only when he likes. One cannot change terminology as subjectively as this and not be bias. It is another indicator of how Larkins turns his perspective into bias and aims to depict the funeral industry only as he sees fit.
Profit is bad
For Larkins the funeral industry seeking profit is a bad thing. On numerous occasions he complains or criticises the funeral industry desire for profit. Depicting the funeral industry as cold and emotionless, only caring about money at the expense of the mourner or deceased.
We see this on page 12 to 13 where he complains of the high costs and how undertakers are ripping off mourners. Or on page 27 to 28 where the cost of a funeral is a big concern and how funeral homes are doing 'insensitive things' to get a higher profit margine. Or on page 47 where he calls coffin markups "outrageous" and believes they are well overpriced. Or page 56 and 61 where he says how cemetery owners are just property developers looking for a sale, and that city cemeteries cost more than country ones because of this. Or with page 77 to 82 where he explains how the Americans forced their profit hungry culture upon Australia and created the viewing only out of desire for more money. Or page 91 to 92 where he talks of how funeral homes mistreat and ignore those who are not 'big spenders'. These are but a few highlights of when he directly criticises the funeral industry and its profit seeking nature.
There are so many things wrong with this, for example he does not support the statements in any way (an issue I discuss later). But he also forgets to point out how profit seeking has been very beneficial for the funeral industry. It has forced funeral companies to seek new and alternative things, to meet and offer what mourners want. Funeral homes have to be nice to mourners, otherwise they make no money and go bust. Most importantly, the funeral industry is an industry like any other. They have to make a profit or they go out of business. They have trained and professional employees and bills to pay like any other business. Is it really reasonable to expect them to work for free? Would we expect a lawyer to work for free or to not make a profit? He also forgets that most funeral homes and staff do not make that much money. One can often earn more by rising the ranks in retail than by working in the funeral industry. Your checkout person might have earned more than your conductor.
This is an unfortunately common issue people have with other businesses. We tend to want others to work out of the goodness of their heart, to not be profit driven. But do not want this for ourselves I have even heard this argument levelled agains universities. How they should focus on education, not on making money. These people fail to realise that the university sells education, it makes money through providing knowledge. It uses this money to pay its staff, from lecturers to gardeners. The funeral industry is no different, it sells funerals and we should not expect or criticise it for doing so. the only legitimate criticism is when this has hurt mourners (the customers). But Larkins does not focus on this, instead complaining of all profit.
Focus on price & cost
Larkins complains of how the funeral industry is making money at the expense of quality or personal funerals. Ironically his book does this more than the funeral industry. All his advice on how to get a 'good' funeral is so focused on prices and avoiding costs that there is little to no discussion of quality or personal service. For Larkins the 'ideal' funeral would be very basic, cheap, environmentally friendly and not involve the funeral industry. He never explains how to get a quality and personal funeral, or how to work with the industry to get what you really want or a reasonable price.
Everything is so focused on avoiding the industry costs that he misses what he criticises the industry for missing. He overlooks quality and personalisation to focus on profit. Which was a rather ironic and amusing when you think about it.
This book resorts to oversimplification so much it is unbelievable. For Larkins all agency rests in one group, and every relationship is one-directional. It is constant throughout the book, when it comes to any relationship or interaction Larkins describes it in such simple terms. That one influences or directs the other. This is a simplistic and superficial view that does not hold up with any close inspection.
An example of this is his statement that a "look at history of funerals in Australia reveals that the death-care industry has imposed itself top-down on Australian society" (Larkins, 2007, p.10). To think that the funeral industry has such one-directional influence on society, that the funeral industry is manipulating society, is simply absurd. For this to be the case the funeral industry would need to operate with a single mind or set of goals. Unfortunately the industry is rather fragmented, there are so many different companies working in different directions that this is not true at all. Another thing this needs is for the funeral industry to operate outside of society, to not need to follow social convention or change. Again, unfortunately this is not true. The funeral industry is heavily influenced by society, as changes in social attitudes change what the funeral industry does and the direction it takes. A decent look at history demonstrates that changes in mourning and attitudes to death have seriously shaped the industry. Companies like InvoCare are only able to publicly mass-advertise due to social changes. A few decades ago mass or public advertisements like that would have been unacceptable. Unfortunately Larkins fails to realise that society has shaped the industry more than it could shape society.
Actually, the social changes which let the funeral industry act the way Larkins describe are the same changes which allow this book. A few decades ago this book would never have been published, it would have been unsavoury to say the least. But society has changed, which has influenced the industry and allowed Larkins to publish this book.
Perhaps this is due to our different training and frameworks. I approach things with an anthropology/sociology with a hint of psychology as my background. This informs how I see and understand things. When he talks of the imposition of the funeral industry on society I think of the gaze, how this concept explains why this is wrong. Perhaps Larkins does not have the same background and thus makes mistakes I notice. However, this does not make it acceptable. he is a legal professional writing a proper book. I am a student writing an informal blog in my personal time. Yet I have done more research in less than a year to the point where I can disprove most of his arguments and statements.
Larkis riddles his book with statements, but very rarely supports them. His references section at the end of the book is worryingly short for a book this size and style. Nor does he use anecdotal evidence much or effectively. He just states thing, as though he mear statement makes them true. There are two ways he leave statements unsupported: a lack of evidence and a lack of reasoning.
Firstly, the lack of evidence; he rarely has qualitative or quantitative evidence to support the claim. An example of this is his claim that the funeral industry has imposed itself on society on page 10. He never substantiates this claim, just says it is the case. Even though evidence or thought counters this quite easily. Even when he does use evidence he does so wrongly. For example, on page 7 he states how SCIA owned 75% of cemeteries and crematoriums in Sydney. But he never cites this, never states where he got the figure from. How are we to know it's true, that he did not just make it up?
Secondly, the lack of reasoning; as some decent authors demonstrate, one does not need evidence to support their argument. They just need a very strong and thought out argument, where the reasoning becomes the support. Foucault, Durkheim, Derrida and so on are good examples of this. In Foucault s 'History of Sexuality' one does not find much direct evidence for the statements. Instead Foucault rests his argument on good reasoning. Durkheim also does this, explaining social attitudes and behaviours only with a well explained argument. One does not need evidence, one can explain why they think the way they do to support the statement. Like showing the working out in a math exam. However, Larkins never really does this, he just makes a statement and leaves it hanging without support. Rarely do we see any reasoning, and when we do it is never of a high caliber, certainly not good enough to rest on its own.
Larkins is incredibly bias in how he approaches the topic. This book demonstrates no critical thinking at all, never does he question his own assumptions or views. Instead he states them as truth, without support, and exaggerates or avoids things as it suits him.
We all have a perspective, nobody is truly objective. But this perspective becomes a bias when we ignore and focus on things selectively to support our thoughts. He even states this at the beginning, his reason for the investigating was the unsatisfactory funeral of his friend. Right from the start his framework and mindset were negative and judgemental of the funeral industry. So it is no surprise that he wrote a book like this.
Lack of Inside or first hand knowledge
Throughout the book I got a sense that Larkins had limited first hand experience with the funeral process. A great example is his statement that because the coffin flares out at just below the shoulders the body is that "very cramped" in the coffin (Larkins, 2007, p.46). This is so untrue in most cases, I have repeated this statement to a few people who coffin bodies regularly. None think it's true, most actually have a bit of a giggle. This was just such a rather odd and untrue statement, but an understandable assumption for those who have very limited experience with coffining a body. If one has not seen the procedure one could understandably assume the body is cramped. As the coffin is widest blow the shoulders, not at the shoulders. But it is still wide enough at the shoulders, and as some have told me the coffin is wider below the shoulders for the arms. Here is where the elbows sit so the hands can rest on the body in a comfortable way. Which one should know if they coffined a body.
There were other little statements and ideas like this which point to Larkins having limited personal experience with the industry. I found myself suspecting he had only studied from the distance, observed and watched. Not participated or been involved with the process. Because of this his view is very one sided, it is that of an outsider with many of the misconceptions that other outsiders have.
Perspective & framework
This is not so much a criticism as an observation. Larkins is a legal professional, specialising in divorce and relationship style law. He approaches this topic and study in much the same way as a legal one. take his referencing style for example. Most of his citations are parliamentary investigations, and he does not work in interviews or anecdotal evidence as a support for his argument. He has anecdotes he has personal stories. Just not as bits of evidence or support for his points or concepts. I found it very interesting how Larkins approached this topic. He did so in a very different way to me, even my referencing style is completely different to his. It goes to show how training makes a huge impact on how we look at things.
He looks at the topic with a social sciences aim, but does so with a legal style. Which is a really unique style. Unfortunately I do not feel it works, which is a shame in many ways. Take his referencing style for example. Larkins uses the Oxford style, which is used in history departments and can be used in philosophy. This style is good for keeping the text short, but more difficult to follow specific concepts. In departments like history this is not really an issue and space is more important as it affects the argument style. However, for things like psychology or anthropology (my area) use the Chicago or APA referencing methods. Because they are less concerned with space compared to following the specific concept. The specific concept and its origins are more important and the reference becomes a more significant piece of evidence for the argument. So showing the exact page and place for the source is important in the social sciences. It changes how one argues or supports their argument. Here is a big place Larkins falls down, and a big reason his book would not be considered 'academic' level. He uses the endnote (Oxford) method to make a sociology style argument.
I found this book a wonderful example of how important referencing style is for argument structure. But also how important training is on developing a perspective.