The Criticism Cycle

A while ago I wrote a post about the 'vulnerable capties' of the funeral industry, how the public perception is that the funeral customer is locked into using the industry and vulnerable while using it.

Most complaints come from a lack of understanding of the funeral industry and through unrealistic expectations, which is an argument others have also made.  This is something Jalland argues in her book "Changing Ways of Death in twentieth-century Australia: war, medicine and the funeral business" (2006).  She points out there has been a lot of criticism about the industry, but government inquiries have found most of it to be unsubstantial.  That most complaints originate through a lack of understanding of the industry and unrealistic expectations.

This is something I have also found, how many have unrealistic or inaccurate views of the industry when making complaints.  For the sake of simplicity I am dividing the complaints into two main groups, first is profiteering and second is misconduct.

The funeral industry has high prices, lets be honest, things cost a decent bit for even basic services and products.  As such many complain about this, arguing how unreasonably expensive the industry can be.  Unfortunately this is a rather pointless and unreasonable complaint born out of a one sided view.  The industry might be expensive, but profits are generally not high.

The funeral home might charge a 200% mark up on a coffin, but almost all of that went to cover other costs they cannot charge for.  Such as staff having to wait around for a body at a hospital.  The company needs to pay their wage but it would be unfair to directly charge the family for this extra unforeseen expense.

As far as I have found most funeral homes operate on a very slim profit, certainly not worth the hours or effort they put into their work.  All evidence I can find points to very tight profits for all companies, I can honestly say I have found nothing to suggest there is a lot of profit to be made in the funeral game.  Yet people make this complaint anyway.

Many do not understand the labour intensive process of the funeral when they make this complaint.  All they see is the person die, then they sign some papers, pick some stuff and then the funeral which only lasts about an hour or so.  To them it was hardly that difficult or that much, making them wonder about the true value.  But they do not realise the paperwork involved, how the funeral staff raced about to organise papers, to book a venue and caterers, to organise flowers, to get the coffin, to get the body, to prepare the body and sort everything out.

Quite a few people think the funeral industry should operate more as a charity or at least operate on an altruistic basis, that it is here to offer a service.  So the desire for profit is not right, almost imoral in a sense.  Again, this idea is born out of not understanding the industry, that it has bills to pay such as staff wage, that they are staff and not volunteers.

A funeral is a very labour intensive thing to organise, with many hidden costs that simply cannot be accounted for or covered on the bill.  A lot of people do not think of the funeral industry beyond the funeral service, so they think of the price only in terms of the funeral service.

Concerns about misconduct are also common, a fear of how the undertaker will treat the body.  It really is both common and strong, I have received emails asking about mistreatment.  Basically these people had to be concerned enough to look it up, to then find my blog and then still motivated enough to write me an email asking specific questions.  All despite the fact that mistreatment is rare to say the least.

The most famous mistreatment concern is necrophilia, people are genuinely worried about this happening to them or others.  After a year of working in the industry and another year od poking around the industry I have found not even the slightest of hits of necrophilia in Sydney.  There are simply no rumours, nothing past or present to indicate necrophilia has happened.  My university UNSW had its cadaver rights taken away a few years ago.  There were discussions amongst students about how the medical students must have been practicing necrophilia in some way.  But it was nothing like this, reliable information indicates it was general mistreatment that had gone on too long.  Not a malicious mistreatment, but simply inappropriate behaviour towards the bodies.  The breaking point came when one cadaver was supposedly released from a window onto a lawn where others were eating.  We must remember that this is not the funeral industry nor is it common by any measure.

I have heard of mistreatment from the funeral industry, but even if every rumour were true it is surprisingly rare.  Some companies are better than others, but generally deliberate mistreatment is incredibly uncommon and minor in most cases.  Worse are the mistakes, something like the mortuary workers putting the wrong colour socks on a deceased.  Even these mistakes are rare as companies have checklists and specific procedures to prevent them.

These concerns of mistreatment are completely unfounded, but that does not make them unreasonable for the public.  The public does not see the mortuary in action, they do not and cannot understand what it is like or the procedures in place to prevent mistakes and mistreatments.  So it is perfectly reasonable for the public to hold this concern, however unfounded it might be.

Here in lies the issue, the funeral industry is itself hidden from the public, only engaging with them on the funeral service and the arrangement.  The public sees the funeral industry take money, take bodies and spit out a funeral service.  They see little to nothing in between and cannot find this information online if they were to look.

The funeral industry grew out of a desire to remove the funeral from the domestic life after WWI, people wanted to pay professionals to take care of the dead for them.  They had had enough of dead and death during the great war, which had started positive but became negative after it was over.  The industry grew out of a want for distance and separation as well as a negative and denying attitude towards death.

So it is not unreasonable for the funeral industry to want to keep the processes hidden.  The industry is not ashamed of itself, or up to anything dubious.  But it knows the public desire to not see these processes and wants to meet this desire, it is the very reason for the industry existing a way.  The industry also fears public backlash at showing some processes, that these things are not "appropriate" or would be "uncomfortable" to discuss in a public setting.  Those within the industry genuinely fear being labeled as "morbid" or "inappropriate" as this could seriously hurt a business.

However, in doing this the industry looks like it is up to something, hiding its secrets from prying eyes. The public does not understand the industry as it cannot see it or learn about it, but it sees the industry keeping things behind closed doors.  This is then turned into a suspicion of the industry, which in turn reinforces the industry fear of public persecution.

Essentially it is a negative feedback loop.  The public is distrustful of the industry because the industry is unknown and acts secretive.  The funeral industry is secretive as it fears public persecution and because this is the very reason it grew to what it is now.  The two cycle back over and over to create unfounded and unfair criticisms of the industry.  Only the industry can break this cycle, through healthy and open discussions.  Not an easy or comfortable thing, but possibly something we now need as society is once again shifting its attitudes about death and funerals.

We publicly discuss death, in terms of euthanasia, palliative care, cancer and so on and there is even a regular conference  'Dead Down Under' on attitudes towards death, dying and grief.  Yet the funeral industry itself is little to no part of these discussions.  The topic has entered the public again, but forgotten the funeral industry in the past.  Perhaps it is time those within the industry entered the public discussions, became part of the debate and influenced public perception of the funeral industry.  Otherwise it will forever be but an unknown and distrusted thing, distant and separate from us.


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