Faces of Death

Just caught up with the PBS Frontline documentary “The Undertaking,” which looks at American funeral practices through the prism of Thomas Lynch‘s small-town mortuary business. Lynch, in addition to the funeral trade, is an amazing essayist and eloquent explainer of how we grieve and what it means to do so. At bottom, despite Lynch’s profound charms, I still can’t shake the sense that the funeral industry in aggregate extracts far too much money from mourning people awash in a misplaced sense that they ought to want only “the best” for the departed. In Lynch’s defense, however, he is quite articulate in his essays on the point that funerals are for the living — a plain fact that many mourners, in their loss, manage to lose sight of. (As a somewhat insensitive 19 year old, after reading Lynch I took this point a little too much to heart and told my dad I’d be cremating him. Sorry, dad!)

Anyway, the Frontline episode is great. You can catch the whole thing here. Despite my cynicism about Big Death, I was moved by the deeply humane way Lynch and his family ply their trade. The best part is when Lynch visits an octogenarian in hospice to delicately raise the subject of her funeral plans. At one point, the lady’s niece has to yell so her ailing aunt can hear her: “Do you want to be cremated, Aunt Mary? CREMATED?” And the elderly woman, finally registering the inquiry, calmly replies, “Oooh, yes!” as if she’d been invited to go see a movie.

For the case against Big Death (average U.S. funeral costs $6,500!),watch this stylish animation from GOOD magazine:

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