In North America the modern undertaker’s job is increasingly one of event-planning, says Sherri Tovell, an undertaker in Windsor, Canada. Among the requirements at her recent funerals have been a tiki hut, margaritas, karaoke and pizza delivery. Some people want to hire an officiant to lead a “life celebration”, others to shoot ashes into the skies with fireworks. Old-fashioned undertakers are hard put to find their place in such antics. Another trend—known as “direct cremation”—has no role for them at all.
Besides having to offer more diverse services, the trade also faces increased competition in its products. Its roots are in carpentry. “You’d buy an expensive casket and the funeral would be included in the price,” remembers Dan Isard, a funeral consultant in Phoenix, Arizona. The unwritten agreement was that the dead would be treated with dignity and that families would not ask if there was an alternative to the $1,000 or $2,000 coffin, or whether embalming was really needed. The business has something in common with prostitution, reflects Dominic Akyel of the University of Cologne. It is legal (as prostitution is in some places) but taboo, “and certainly not to be discussed or haggled over”.
The undertaker used to be able to rely on a steady stream of customers who asked few questions and of whom he (and it was usually a he) would ask few in return. Protestant or Catholic? Open coffin or closed? And, in some parts of the world, burial or cremation? A new generation of customers, though, no longer unthinkingly hands over its dead to the nearest funeral director. They are looking elsewhere, be it to a new breed of undertaker, to hotel chains that “do” funerals, or—for their coffin or urn—to Amazon or Walmart.
Here is more from The Economist, interesting throughout