Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Slight But Relevant Digression

An article in yesterday's New York Times provides one more illustration of a shift in American culture:

The Funeral: Your Last Chance to Be a Big Spender
Mr. Firnstein also says he is fielding more calls from families interested in natural burials. Adherents of the movement wrap bodies in simple shrouds or in biodegradable coffins and bury them in woodland cemeteries.

Such simple burials are traditional in many faiths, and were long the standard practice in the United States until the Civil War, when the development of modern embalming and the expansion of the train system altered the landscape of death and gave rise to the modern mortuary practice.
Read that last sentence again: "...the expansion of the train system altered the landscape..."

A generation ago, the reporter almost certainly would have written, "the expansion of the railroad network."

This is not a matter of enthusiast nit-picking; rather I submit that it is further evidence of the retreat of the railroads from their once-central position in American life. People just don't think much about railroads anymore; consequently, standardized terms of discourse that were once familiar to all have been forgotten and reporters grab for new ones on the fly.

Back to topic: my head exploded when I read this part about the trend to simpler and cheaper funerals:
“Back in the day, families might spend $10,000, $12,000 on a solid African mahogany casket, have an all-out wake and such,” (funeral director Jerry Sullivan) says. “Those days are over.”

Today, many funeral directors offer hardwood or metal rental coffins for a short period before cremation, Mr. Sullivan says. He charges roughly $1,000 to rent a hardwood casket for a daylong viewing; a body is placed in a combustible container of cardboard or soft wood, and inserted into the rental coffin lined with fabric.
A thousand bucks to rent a wooden box for one day? You could rent a house for a month for less than that around here.

1 comment:

Nan said...

Checked the price of shrouds lately? Even getting wrapped in an old sheet isn't as cheap as it used to be.

When I was doing field work at Ozarks NSR a few years ago the park archeologist (who was from the local area) said he could remember that as recently as the 1960s local sawmills always had some boards set aside that people could help themselves to any time, night or day, when they needed to make a coffin. When someone died, family members made all the arrangements themselves, right down to building the box and digging the grave.