Not So Clean, Not So Dry

If you’re looking for a diversion from fighting fashionable and religious nonsense, but you don’t want to miss your daily dose of sanctimony, look no further than the American funeral business. You’ll seldom find a culture as steeped in faux tradition, self-regard, mythology and jargon as the Dismal Trade. What the typical American endures—and pays for—when a family member dies would strike most readers from other countries as having a through-the-looking-glass quality. It would strike Americans that way, too, if most of us knew what went on behind the formaldehyde curtain.

Well, here’s a little peek for you. The following extract is from my book, co-written with Lisa Carlson, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death. —Josh Slocum

Are you afraid of bugs? Does the thought of burial in the dank, dark earth leave you cold? Well, maybe a mausoleum is for you. Or maybe not.

Crypt space above ground has long been marketed as a “clean and dry” alternative to earth burial. Mausoleum operators aren’t shy about exploiting your squeamishness to sell you a slot. But from an engineering perspective, shelving whole human bodies behind an inch of wall space and inviting mourners to come “visit” them was never a good idea. Dead people decompose, and unless the mausoleum is properly engineered, they do it in a particularly nasty way.

A well-engineered mausoleum promotes air flow to dehydrate the bodies, with crypt slots angled backward to drain fluids that can breach the casket and run out the front. Yet many of these posthumous high-rises are shoddily constructed, and using the wrong kind of casket can lead to disaster. So-called sealer (or “protective”) caskets have a rubber gasket that seals the space between the lid and the bottom. That is exactly what you don’t want: Trapping moisture and gases causes the body to rapidly putrefy into a festering soup. People from around the country have filed suit against funeral homes, casket companies, and mausoleums for duping them into believing these “protective” caskets and above-ground crypts would keep mom clean and dry. Horrified families have sent us photographs showing liquefied remains inside the casket and gushing out onto the sidewalk.

Many in the industry know the truth, but conceal it in order to keep selling to the unwary public. There are at least four brands of Tyvek-type bags peddled in the mortuary trade journals that envelop the casket to “protect it,” as the ads coyly claim. But they’re not protecting the casket, they’re protecting the mausoleum from the casket:

Let Nature Take Its Course
We know what happens after the crypt is sealed. Your clients do not know, or do not want to know. Provide comforting visits over decades with Ensure-A-Seal’s new and improved Casket Protector. Durable and strong, the cover is designed for both metal and wood caskets. The ONE-WAY check valve allows gases to escape. The NEW seamless, chemically hardened fiberboard tray contains liquids. Don’t let natural processes destroy your facility’s reputation.

Carlson’s Funeral Ethics Organization newsletter unearthed a 1994 study on mausoleums by the Monument Builders of North America that examined how caskets held up over time in above-ground crypts:

MBNA found that the Catholic Cemetery Association was documenting an 86% failure rate for problems with wood and cloth-covered caskets, 62% for nonsealing metal, and 46% for ‘protective” or ‘sealer’ caskets. Even with the somewhat better results, the report states in bold print, ‘It is highly unlikely that such protective sealer metal caskets employ sufficient mechanisms to contain body fluids or gases.’

Betty Greiman learned the truth about mausoleums the hard way.

“The crypt was open to put his casket in and when we looked in, we saw that my mother’s casket was propped open with what looked like 2×4s. And I was hysterical,” she said to a reporter for WKRC in Cincinnati.

Greiman filed suit against Forest Lawn Cemetery in Erlanger, Ohio, after discovering the owners were propping open all the caskets to ventilate them. Ventilation is, of course, exactly what a sensible mausoleum operator wants, but propping open the coffins without telling the families?

We’ve long wondered why mausoleums would even accept sealer caskets, let alone require them, as some do. And why would funeral directors—the supposed professionals—even sell a sealer casket to a family choosing mausoleum burial? Perhaps it’s because many of them are genuinely (if inexcusably) confused. Many mausoleums require embalming on the grounds that it will prevent odors, but that won’t help for more than a few weeks or months. Apparently some undertakers actually believe this is an acceptable long-term solution.

So do some mausoleum managers. Slocum had a bizarre conversation with the manager of a Florida mausoleum in 2003. A woman from Michigan who wanted to bury her husband in a crypt they owned in Florida sent FCA copy of a letter from a “Planning Specialist” at Forest Hills Memorial Park and Funeral Home in Palm City, owned by Stewart Enterprises. In the letter, saleswoman Deanna Mitchell told the customer her husband would “need to be embalmed, and in at least an 18-gauge steel casket for placement into the mausoleum crypt.” The woman didn’t want to embalm her husband and saw no need to waste money on a heavy 18-gauge casket.

Slocum asked the saleswoman why the mausoleum required embalming. “For preservation,” she said. He then asked Stewart’s regional sales manager why Forest Hills required an 18-gauge casket. Bill Baggett tried to claim “bylaws from the state of Florida” required an 18-gauge; it took some pressing for him to admit these were merely the cemetery’s own bylaws (rules) that had been filed with the state regulatory office. So, why the 18-gauge? “Well, our 18-gauge caskets seal,” he said. Given the problems associated with sealer caskets in warm climates, Slocum asked why the cemetery would even want a sealer in its crypt.

“Over the years we’ve transferred many of our patients to different spaces and we’ve never had that problem,” Baggett replied.

Mr. Baggett must not read his trade journals. The weekly Funeral Service Insider published an article on “exploding casket syndrome” in 2003. FSI offered its readers “four approaches to consider: do nothing, cut chunks out of the rubber seal, leave off some of the casket hardware so air can get it, or just unseal the box completely. Cutting pieces from the casket seal (you know, the rubber gasket you paid hundreds more for because it would “protect” your loved one) was an idea from Curt Rostad, a well-known funeral director and industry commentator.
If you feel you must have mausoleum burial, take these precautions:

• Tour the buildings, and note any odors and any stains on the front of crypts or the floor or sidewalk beneath them.
• Do not purchase a sealer casket. If the mausoleum tells you these are required, you know all you need to know to cross the mausoleum off your list.
• It’s probably worth a few hundred dollars to buy an enclosure bag to zip up around the casket

About the Author

Josh Slocum is Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Lisa Carlson is Executive Director of the Funeral Ethics Organization.

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