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In Plain Sight: 10 Things to Know About Funeral Homes Before You Die

Saturday, January 24, 2015


The Graveyard

I remember taking a career aptitude test in high school. These tests were administered long before it was ever suggested that we just follow our passion, so we anxiously awaited the results to see what we should be when we grew up. We filled in the bubbles in the Scantron, and maybe the test took into consideration our grades and the books we checked out from the school library. Maybe not. 

The only other thing that I remember is that I thought the test was dumb and the result a worthless lie because it suggested that I would be best suited for the wonderful world of mortuary science. 

I have always liked to think that I’m better suited for more lively endeavors, but thinking back on that aptitude test, perhaps accusing the test result of being a worthless lie was not entirely true because lately I’ve been very curious about the industry of death. 

Following my curiosity is how I came to find out that, although funeral homes and funeral directors are easy to find, the secrets of the death industry are as mysterious as death to most of us. I contacted over a dozen funeral homes before a friend directed me to her friend who is a funeral director. He met and spoke with me under a promise of anonymity. I’ll call him, Mort.

You may not be curious about death and I respect that. If that’s the case, however, consider skipping this and spending your life avoiding death…or die trying. 

For me, however, the many questions I had for Mort were my Scantron destiny. Has his work in the funeral industry made him more spiritual? What does it mean to bring your work home with you? Are there interesting trends in the death biz? Has corporatization had a huge impact on industry practices? What happens to our bodies? How long does rigor mortis last? Is it a risky business? Can you catch diseases? What’s the strangest request anyone has made of you? What laws govern the industry? How come so many funeral homes have been in the same family for generations? Are most cultures afraid of the dead? What are some of the coolest customs? What happens with implants or fat people in the crematorium? Are you an organ donor? What did your aptitude test suggest?

If you are reading this you are mortal and ultimately doomed to die. Assuming you’re a less gifted speed reader than your mother used to claim, by the time you finish this article approximately 214 people will die. The death industry is big business because 100% of us will die from death alone.

In Case You’re Curious: 10 Things to Know Before You Go

1. The Funeral Service Program that started at Mount Hood Community College in 1969, is one of six programs on the West Coast, and is the only funeral program in Oregon. For decades the only students were men. I’m not sure if they were all lanky, pale and sinister, but I imagine they were as they did usually come from a long-line of funeral home directors. Now the program has more women graduates than men, but a large percentage still come from the family business.

2. If you’re thinking of a death degree, you should be ready to pass classes in Funeral Service Sociology, Law, Embalming, Chemistry, Management, Funeral Home Directing, Restorative Art, Microbiology, Counseling, and Pathology. A Mock Funeral Arrangement Exercise allows funeral program students to practice working with pseudo-grieving families to obtain practice in a comfortable environment, and it’s required for graduation. Feel free to inquire at MHCC because, in the past the Mock Funeral has been open to the public.

3. The Federal Trade Commission is the government body that oversees the funeral industry and it has done so since 1984. Licensing is different state by state. Some states issue Mortician licenses, others issue Embalmer, Funeral Director, Funeral Service Practitioner licenses or a combination of a few. Oregon issues both a Funeral Director/Practitioner and an Embalmer license.


4. One doesn’t have to use a funeral expert nor does one have to deal with a funeral home to bury a body. To bury a body in a traditional grave cemetery may require that the body be placed in a formed vault in the ground because it prevents settlement and allows the grounds to be mowed without the lawnmower going all catawampus. If you decide to bury a body in your own backyard, you must first own the real estate. Call your agent. You also have to obtain written consent from the county or city planning commissioner and agree to maintain records. You must also disclose the burial when you go to sell the property. You can scatter ashes on your property to your heart's content.

5. Big corporations have purchased many funeral homes that had been in the same families for generations. The largest death-care corporation is Service Corporation International and it operates over 1500 funeral homes. When Service Corporation International purchased the second largest death-care corporation, Stewart Enterprises Inc., in 2013, many Portland funeral homes and crematoriums were swept up in the corporate mix. Corporate funeral homes have a reputation of acting suspiciously like corporations with an emphasis on streamlining and systems, lots of death-packages to choose from, and, an eyeball toward profits. Mort’s mortuary is not corporate so there is a lot of leniency in terms of how family members can decorate their vaults and niches in the mausoleum. One niche contained the ashes and photos of a delightful-looking woman…and her iPhone because her family said she would have never wanted to be without it. Mort just hoped it never rang.

6. Cremation has been around since the Stone Age. It is increasingly popular in the US with forecasts of over 50% of all deaths handled through cremation by 2025. The process takes about 2-3 hours at 1500-1800 degrees Fahrenheit. There are special caskets that can be purchased that go right into the crematorium and the non-metal parts disappear with the other organic material. Bones need to be ground up post cremation in the cremulator. The rest of the body turns to ash. Obese bodies cost more and must be cremated early in the day. Adipose tissue (fat) burns slowly so it takes a longer time and the machine needs to be cold to start or it will overheat and could catch on fire. Manufactures have started to build supersize cremation machines to accommodate the increasing number of supersize bodies. After cremation, metal implants like hips and knees are removed by hand or by a large magnet. Pacemakers have to be removed before cremation because the intense heat can cause the batteries to explode. Breast implants can go right with the body, but they tend to melt and leave a gelatinous goop in the cremation machine. Operating and cleaning cremation machines can be learned on the job—there are no special licenses.

7. Embalming is the process in which blood is drained from the body and goes down the drain and formaldehyde is pumped into the body to delay decomposition. Embalming doesn’t delay decomposition forever. Feature setting places the features in their proper spots for viewing. The hands and face are the most important because the rest of the body is generally covered. There are special, plastic eye caps that are placed in the eye sockets so the eyes don’t sink and they look pleasant. Special dead-skin makeup is applied because we’re pale without blood. Some funeral directors charge additional fees for embalming when special restoration is required, after an autopsy, or in the case of organ/tissue donation. Law does not require embalming, but it can be required by some funeral homes to be placed in a mausoleum, for example.

An "un-fancy" urn

8. Final resting real estate offers an amazing variety, starting with the plethora of caskets available for purchase. They range in price from a standard metal version for about $995 to fancy King of Pop Promethian version for about $25,000. Cremation urns range in price from a $10 keepsake size to custom urns in the thousands of dollar range. You can even create custom cremation urns in keepsake size or full size for ashes to be stored your own image, the image or your loved one, or a celebrity like Uma Thurman or Barak Obama. I didn’t see any bobble head urns, but I bet that they exist. Biodegradable urns contain seeds that get nutrients from the ashes. Star Trek aficionados can enjoy eternity in thematic urns like the “To Boldly Go” and “The Voyage Continues.” No frills plastic or cardboard urns are generally offered as a gift with purchase of a cremation. The varieties of caskets and urns that Mort showed me were more traditional but hardly less interesting. 

9. Mort is now and forever an atheist. His profession has narrowed his dating pool to fellow industry folk, but that may be because he’s honest enough to share the details of his day. He is an organ donor because, as he says, “I don’t care. I’ll be dead.” He wears gloves when he embalms but he doesn’t worry too much about catching diseases because most diseases require a live host to transfer. They do have protocols in place for rare situations like Ebola. He told me about trends like green burials where bodies are placed in holes in natural areas in the ashes-to-ashes tradition, but so far he hasn’t seen many cemeteries catering to that yet. It does seem like a very Portland thing though.

10. If you have read this far, I assume you’re comfortable enough with the natural realities of death for me to share what Mort shared about some of the more strange requests. A family had moved back east and wanted their beloved deceased grandfather to be exhumed and shipped back to be buried with the rest of the family. When they retrieved his body, all that was left were blackened bones in a poly-blend suit. Moral: If you want to stay clothed, avoid wearing a natural fiber designer get-up to your funeral. The second request had to do with the extraction of gold fillings. The deceased had requested that his nephew extract his gold fillings when he died. It was actually in writing. When the nephew realized the trouble and expense he’d have to go through to obtain the $5 of gold from his uncle’s mouth, he decided against it. Which leads to a final and important point: Your loved ones cannot be made to fulfill your wishes about what is done with your body. You can ask and indicate, but if they decide they can’t abide because they can’t afford to or they’re not in the mood, there is nothing you can do about it. Or can you?

A graduate degree in behavioral science, three generations of Portland blood in her veins, 20 years as a real-estate broker, and a lifetime of delving into other people’s business has caused Becki Saltzman’s severe curiosity disorder. She is the author of Arousing the Buy Curious: Real Estate Pillow Talk for Patrons and Professionals and The Living Curiously Method (launching in 2015) and founder of Oomau Media. She looks forward to expanding membership in the Tribe of the Curious.

You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook…or not.


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