I first heard Lisa Carlson on a radio talk show about possible reforms in the funeral industry, particularly, in regard to do-it-yourself funerals. The show was produced in New Hampshire, where the Senate was considering a bill to grant family members and designated agents the right to handle funeral details such as death records, body transportation, and burial permits. The existing statute reserved those tasks for licensed undertakers, which Carlson argued denied people a traditional and often therapeutic involvement in family funerals, as well as creating unfair funeral costs.
She’d been invited to appear on the show as head of the Funeral and Memorial Society Association of America and as author of Caring for the Dead, about do-it-yourself funeral procedures. She appeared with the head of the New Hampshire Undertakers and Embalmers Association, and it was a feisty debate, with Carlson making a persuasive case for the new law, and the funeral director making predictable pitches for the benefits of his services. The funeral industry declined to take an official position on the statute, and the law passed.
Carlson talked about being compelled to have a do-it-yourself funeral for her first husband to save money, and about finding that the emotional benefits were even more valuable than the financial ones. Subsequent family deaths had been followed with homemade funerals. Carlson is a believer.
I told her I was interested in understanding why we’d inherited such a schizophrenic culture about funeral practices: lots of violence and death in our entertainment, but little stomach for the real thing. I wondered where her organization fit in. There’d been a few deaths in my hometown recently, and I’d heard from several survivors who wished they’d taken a more hands-on approach. In the end, they’d left it up to the professionals and felt vaguely unfulfilled, even shortchanged.
“Memorial societies have been the world’s best-kept secret for years,” she said. “They started back in the late 1930s after the Depression. A radical Unitarian minister in Seattle was appalled at the high cost of dying, when the industry was pushing embalming and manufactured caskets. He represented a group of people who went to a funeral director and said, ‘We don’t think a funeral should cost more than such and such, we want a simple exit, no frills. If we send all our mem bers to you, will you agree to honor this price?’ That was how the first urban memorial society started. It was not inconsistent with some of the thoughts behind the old burial co-ops in the agrarian Midwest and South. Each one has a slightly different flavor, but a similar concern. How do we prepare for the end of life without spending a lot of money?”
To get to our current situation, she backtracks to pioneer America, when a group of women would come to the deceased’s house and help with the laying out of the dead. Later, during the Victorian era, there would of ten be an elaborate laying out in the front parlor, with the body on display surrounded by fancy draperies. But as we became a more dispersed society, there wasn’t room or time to lay Grandma out in the parlor anymore. We were spreading out, and the funeral moved from the family home to the undertaker’s “home.”.
“But the public have been willing victims in this,” Carlson points out. “There’s a lot of superstitious thinking, `If we talk about it, it might happen.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to seem morbid.’ I know my grandmother tried to talk to me about her funeral thoughts when I was in my 20s and 1 was very uncomfortable. I said, `Oh Grammy, you’re not going to die.’ I wouldn’t let her talk about it and she didn’t insist. That was the sad thing. In hindsight I wish she had insisted.”
In 1987, Lisa published her first book, Caringfor Your Own Dead (followed 10 years later by Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act Of Love ). Essentially a funeral “how-to” guide, it was inspired by a series of family deaths during the 1980s, beginning with the suicide of her husband. With two young children and next to nothing in the bank, she was forced to scrutinize every item in the funeral plan, and wound up putting together a homemade version, including transport of the body to the crematory. As she discovered, it wasn’t the financial savings that proved most significant.
“That the total cost would now be under $200 had become secondary,” she wrote. “I needed to be a part of John’s death, as I was of his life. If I had had the money, I would have lost that — given that away — in a moment of grief and confusion.”
The book presented detailed information on legal and hygienic requirements in every state, and an argument for getting involved in family funerals. People began calling her for help, not only survivors and self-planners, but also a chapter of the Funeral and Memorial Society of America (FAMSA, recently renamed the Funeral Consumer’s Alliance). Carlson began by improving the visibility of the organization. She was profiled in a cover story in U.S. News and World Report headlined “Don’t Die Before You Read This.” She got mentions in Ann Landers, Dear Abby and appeared twice on Donahue. “After Dear Abby and Ann Landers, we got 30,000 pieces of mail. They had to pull in volunteers to handle it all.”
Members of FCA pay a one-time $25 fee. “The active societies have done a funeral-price survey in their area and/or negotiated a discount for certain cooperating funeral homes. Definitely as a member you’re going to get the cheapest funeral around. It saves hun dreds of dollars. The societies have reciprocal arrangements, so if you die away from home there’s a good chance you’ll be eligible to use a cooperating funeral home wherever you are.” The organization consists of 120 societies across the country, totaling about 500,000 members. Seattle has almost 100,000 members and a paid staff, whereas some local societies struggle with a volunteer staff, administered from someone’s kitchen table.
“Anyone can get behind a consumer’s right to choose,” Lisa says, recalling a speech she ga ve to the alliance. “I told them, If the industry did not manipulate the grieving, did not hide the low-cost caskets, did not dominate the funeral boards with self-serving regulations, did not limit who could sell caskets or in what states you could care for your own dead, there would be no need for our organization. But we have an obligation to protect the public at large, not just our members.” The speech absolutely electrified the whole audience. “There was suddenly a new reason to do what we’re doing.”
“The conscientious, sensitive funeral director will help educate you,” she says. “On the other hand, they will also very willingly let you turn it over to them, and they will plan a more expensive (funeral). The problem is that there are too many undertakers who expect full-time pay for part-time work. Years ago it was a sideline. Now they crank the prices up to charge you waiting-around-until-you-die time. The majority of funeral homes in Vermont are doing 50 calls a year. One a week. When you’re a funeral home and you’re sweating your mortgage, it’s a situation that invites abuse.”
She recounts several recent scandals in Vermont involving funeral directors convicted of fraud. One was discovered selling expensive caskets and then using cheap models for the burial; bodies were even piled up in his garage. Another coerced grieving survivors into buying unwanted services. Pre-need funds disappeared after one undertaker went bankrupt. “In any other business, when you’ve got too many suppliers the prices go down. In this business, they go up. Figure that.”
Financial pressures have made many of the independent funeral homes easy picking for corporate buyouts, which triggers alarms for Carlson. “We know from reports that the manipulative sales tactics of these giant chains are pretty despicable. All they really care about is the stockholders, not the neighborhood family.” She told me about a woman who belonged to a memorial society in the Midwest. After her death, it turned out that the cooperating funeral home had been bought out by SCI. They tried to add $250 to the previously contracted fee, and when the woman’s son objected, they wouldn’t release the ashes. The son called Carlson.
“He was rip-&$#@,” she recalls. “He faxed me his material and I FedExed it to the FTC. Three days, and I got an opinion back. I never got an opinion so fast; It’s illegal.”
Despite these horror stones, Carlson foresees a positive future for consumers.
“Look at the generation that demanded we recycle. Many of them wrote their own wedding vows. They demanded the right to natural childbirth and home schooling. I think they are going to take charge of their funeral experience, just the way you’re taking charge.”
The phone rings and it’s time for Carlson to do a talk show with a radio station in San Antonio. She’s impressive, even awe-inspiring, this woman who’s wrestling with life’s biggest bummer. Some have criticized her for being hot-tempered, pushy, inflexible. But if that’s what it takes to wake a culture in denial, so be it.
I thank her, feeling more resolute than when I arrived, but glad to be heading home.