Historically dominated by staunch traditionalists, the funeral industry is overdue for disruption
Generational divides between morticians have culminated into a relationship that borders on disgust. It’s no secret that, as a generalized collective, the younger cohort resents the older. “‘OK Boomer’ is more than just an imperious insult,” millennial author Jill Filpovic writes. “It’s frustrated millennial shorthand for the ways the same people who created so many of our problems now pin the blame on us.” It’s only natural then, that the distaste extends to the funereally employed.
“Despite advances in medical care, humans still have a 100 percent mortality rate,” says Gail Rubin, Albuquerque’s Doyenne of Death®. So why are we so weird about dying? The National Funeral Directors Association (or, the NFDA) reports in its Consumer Awareness and Preferences study that while consumers (the dead and dying) maintain an awareness of the gravity of funeral planning (62.5%), few actually communicate and begin developing those plans (21.4%).
The millennial generation of morticians feel that the boomers who dominated the industry before them have done a disservice to the culture around death. Boomers, it seems, like to keep secrets, and those funereal secrets have made for an industry that has done a “piss poor job” of educating the public. People don’t ask and so, boomers don’t tell.
Death is enormously intimate and emotional. It’s not entirely unreasonable that generations of morticians have resisted change. The personal nature of death means it is intrinsically linked to cultural tradition. But, as Western societies trend towards individualistic thinking that prioritizes uniqueness and independence, tradition loses its dominance.
Technology, it seems, poses the greatest threat to said tradition. It is garish and can easily ruin the romanticism of such important ceremonies. Boomer morticians have largely resisted its incorporation, hindering the evolution of their beloved industry.
It’s not just boomer morticians that are to blame, it’s also the boomers that employ the services of morticians. Boomers don’t want to be a burden and so, they don’t properly acknowledge death. “We live in a death-denying culture,” millennial YouTuber LittleMissFuneral explains. “The majority of Americans think they are not going to die.”
Dead bodies are (almost) inarguably unappealing. In the U.S. and Britain especially, speaking about death is taboo to the point that we have choices in regards to what euphemism we choose to employ in avoiding explicit usage of the word itself: passed on, kicked the bucket, reset character, gone home, expired, met his maker, bit the dust, on the wrong side of the grass, departed, fell off the toilet, kicked the calendar, and popped one’s clogs (an extended list of 156 and counting death-related expressions are available at your leisure on a Wikipedia page dedicated to the very matter). The millennial era of morticians is peaking now, with its constituents occupying hot-shot positions of power. And they want to wreak havoc on the societal taboos surrounding death.
This new generation of morticians wants the world to understand them, and the processes and the art behind their work. The culture of death is changing, and fast, so try and keep up if you want to best celebrate and mourn your loved ones after they go.
The millennial era of morticians is peaking now, with its constituents occupying hot-shot positions of power. And they want to wreak havoc on the societal taboos surrounding death.
The occasion for this article was found in a panel of millennial morticians for New Mexico’s Before I Die Festival. The panel was moderated by Rubin, the aforementioned Doyenne, a self-classified death educator, and possible boomer (though it seems she is a delightful exception to an otherwise abhorrent generation).
The panel engages in an assortment of death related dialogue: a comparison of smokestack output from crematoriums with those of Burger King, a discussion of everyday items that contain formaldehyde (nail polish, shampoo, and sugar-free gums), a debate around how long-dead bodies carry live coronavirus (though this virus is almost salubrious in comparison to the bloodborne pathogens embalmers face every day), and a harmonious shout of glee for alkaline hydrolysis (the eco-friendly alternative to cremation that boils instead of burns). This all was, undoubtedly, stimulating, but the conversation repeatedly and bitterly found its way back to boomers. Boomer morticians that is, and how the generations of morticians that follow them are vastly superior.
When I call Rubin to ask her why it is exactly that boomer morticians are the worst, she explains that it really boils down to the trade as a whole. “The funeral industry is slow to change,” she remarks.
People have always died. People will continue to die. It would be expected that something so fundamental would inspire innovation in the thousands of centuries of human existence, but death has maintained a traditionalist reputation in a large number of conventional (mostly Anglo-American) social circles. Humans haven’t wanted it to change.
It’s only now that the industry is starting to develop at a sensible rate. If the deceased frequented Depop for both the voguish style and the ecological benefits of buying vintage, they can acquire a mushroom burial suit. A measly $1500 (which is nothing compared to the average $2000 coffin or even just the obscene amount of money spent on home décor at Anthropologie in life) buys a suit made of biodegradable mushrooms that will help their body become one with the earth. Or, if money is tight, relatives may be able to make one from scratch. The spreading of cremated remains takes individualized forms as mourners send them to space far from enemies and exes that seek to spit on their grave, put them in a special jar a relative can keep as a looming conversation piece for guests at the dinner table, make them into an unusual piece of art that a future relative might accidentally sell on Etsy, turn them into shotgun shells that can be used to kill the very assassin that took them out, have them tattooed onto the body of adoring fans, or dump them in the lake the deceased often sat beside, pondering the meaning of life.
It would be expected that something so fundamental would inspire innovation in the thousands of centuries of human existence, but death has maintained a traditionalist reputation in a large number of conventional (mostly Anglo-American) social circles.
These developments exist because, of course, of the millennial superstars who are clawing their way up the ladders of funereal businesses, but also perhaps, in part, because of the internet and social media, which have given our species an insatiable need to differentiate ourselves from one another. The dying of today want to personalize the ceremonies that honor them with the same distinction their Tumblrs and TikToks do in life.
Which explains the recent development of death apps, including Everest, “a funeral concierge rolled into a life-insurance plan.” Will, a thirtysomething in two-toned glasses and a relaxed blazer, greets visitors in a commercial on the service’s site; “Hi my name’s Will, and I’m dead.” He pre-planned his funeral using Everest, saving his family the hassle and allowing himself the choices.
The consumer demand for customized funerals is there, but until recently, most boomer morticians refused to meet it. Though it is unclear where the often forgotten Generation X that lies between the two falls, the millennial morticians are sure to clarify that they are the revolutionaries meeting this newfound demand for customized funerals.
Joél Anthony, otherwise identified as the “Grave Woman,” is a Renaissance woman of death. She is a licensed funeral director, embalmer, insurance agent, death educator, and millennial revolutionary of death. She specializes in cultural competency for funeral homes which can be learned via the courses on her YouTube channel and blog (where she covers topics such as racism within the industry, how to work with bodies that have HIV/AIDs, self-care tips for morticians, and even the occasional makeup tutorial).
In Anthony’s opinion, the funeral industry is 15 to 20 years behind its contemporaries. At least, in its relation to technology. Staunch traditionalists, boomer morticians refused to let technology bleed into their practice in the same capacity it has in other industries. Many have resisted the pleas of personalization from their millennial counterparts.
The New Yorker’s Kendra Eash puts it best: “To boomer ears, a millennial is capable of making only a quiet hissing sound. This is because they tend to emit pitches in the ultrasonic range, which only other millennials can hear.”
Staunch traditionalists, boomer morticians refused to let technology bleed into their practice in the same capacity it has other industries.
The unscrupulous coronavirus rang in at pitch even boomers could hear. Preventing future funerals, unfortunately, impeded the ability to have them for those already destined to die as the potentially deadly virus threatened to spread amongst attendees of paradigmatic services. And so, in the last year, even the most conventionally driven of the funereally employed had to take to new kinds of funerals. Nearly half of NFDA members offered live-streaming options for services, a trend the organization expects will continue into the foreseeable future. And so, the infuriating generational gap is closing.
Unfortunately, it closes on the cusp of or post-retirement. Boomers in their retirement years have opted to sell their once mom-and-pop funeral homes to bigger companies, which isn’t to say those employed by them aren’t deeply passionate about their work, though it does distinctly depersonalize the spaces.
“Of everyone I know in the business [which is a lot], only one guy is in it for the money,” Rubin proudly declares. Most people consider it a calling. Anthony describes her passion for work as if it’s a fate inscribed for her into stone by a prophet—funerals are her destiny.
But it’s really public education and open lines of communication that are the primary concern of death educators. They even have a Facebook group specifically dedicated to millennial morticians in which they ask questions, exchange tips, and even occasionally post flirty selfies in hopes of meeting another equally flirty mortician under the guise of application for a sexy mortician calendar.
A pioneer of the death cafe movement in the U.S. (in which people eat cake and drink tea while discussing death), Rubin hopes to establish yet another means of getting the public planning for their own passings; a holiday of open houses for funeral homes where future patrons can peruse their options. She’ll call it Shop Before You Drop.