Monday, March 22, 2010

Major mortuary bad fun

There were a couple of questions about my mention of marketing collateral on my last post. I wasn't exactly thinking about marketing collateral for mortuaries themselves, although I know some businesses market by presenting seminars on funeral planning, bereavement, and the like, and they offer brochures and other small items. I've seen nice pens and notepads, and coffee cups are within the realm of imagination. The products I've seen are well-designed and tasteful.

Where marketing gets interesting, though, is in marketing products sold through mortuaries to customers. I learned this when my Mom and later my Dad died. When Mom died, my older brother and I went to the funeral home with Dad to Make the Arrangements. We were assisted by a funeral director who was both very kind and very earnest. He took us to a couple of cemeteries so Dad could pick gravesites for himself and Mom to be buried together. (By the way, if you Make Arrangements for a burial, you'll encounter fees labeled "grave opening" and "grave closing." These fees are for digging a hole, and filling it in later.) After that, we visited what I remember as Giant Roomful O Caskets and we chimed in our support as Dad picked one he thought was right for Mom. (Believe me, you DO NOT want to think much about the plethora of options in caskets. Spring counts for the mattress on which the deceased will lie? Hello--the deceased is DEAD, right?)

Afterwards, we went to the director's office, where we were fortified by styrofoam cups of coffee as we faced the final tasks on the huge list of Arrangements to be Made. It turned out that we needed to select a burial vault, which is sort of a concrete box with a top that fits in the grave and contains the casket. The funeral director offered us three choices--basically a Good, Better, and Best of burial vaults. This would not have been really funny, I suppose, except for the fact that as a family we had often joked about the old Sears Catalogue, which offered a Good, Better, and Best option for about anything you might care to buy, from cloth diapers to tractors. We started feeling a bit giggly as we viewed the brochure the director produced. They looked a lot the same, the vaults, and to my non-technical eye it seemed the major difference (besides price) was the length of the guarantee. Each of these choices offered a guarantee to protect the remains of the Loved One from various, erm, degrading influences encountered in the Burial Situation, so to speak. This struck me as rather bizarre and also rather mercenary; after all, who would mark a date on the calendar fifty years hence to go dig up Aunt Ruby and make sure she looked as good as the day you buried her? Odd. I can't remember which vault Dad selected; it wasn't any of my business actually. But we did have quite a laugh when we got out of the place, about the Good, Better, and Best vaults.

Some years later my Dad died. The same brother and I repaired to the same funeral home to make the same Arrangements. We may even have met with the same director, though I can't recall. The year was 1976, the Bicentennial. Anyone alive then must surely recall the patriotically-themed products that flooded every market. We learned that the funeral business had gone with the flow when we entered the Giant Roomful O Caskets. Striped linings and star-studded pillows and linings with the Declaration of Independence printed so as to show above the deceased's head were available in abundance. There were metal caskets subtly and not-so-subtly tinted in shades of red, white, and blue. Coffin kitsch, who would have thought? My Dad loved laughing at kitsch, but would probably have haunted us forever had we buried him in it, so we picked a casket that closely matched Mom's, which we knew he would like. (We were slightly taken aback by the price tag, which showed evidence of significant inflation, but pressed boldly on.) We might, had Dad lived until 1977, been able to get a good discount on a bicentennial casket, but the fear of haunting is not one I take lightly.

When we went to the director's office to finish the Arrangements, we were presented with the same styrofoam cups of coffee. I wasn't startled when the director mentioned burial vaults, but I must say the marketing collateral for same had been greatly enhanced. Instead of glossy brochures, the director brought out three small scale models, cutaway, each model being 1/2 of a vault, for the Good, Better, and Best options. The models fit in a man's hand. Each included the lid, and if you lifted the lid, a tiny light bulb went on so you could view the interior. Each model had a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval sticker affixed to the outside. (I don't know whether the Approval had been granted to the models or to the products they represented, come to think of it.) OMG!!!!! Dad would have died laughing if he had not already died of a heart attack. My brother and I could NOT, absolutely COULD NOT, look at each other. The director was terribly earnest as he showed us the models, which made the moment even funnier, not that it needed any help. I'm sure he thought our choked voices as we ordered "the same as Mom's" were evidence of our deep grief. I found myself wondering if I could abscond with one of the little vaults, so I could keep it on a shelf as a lifelong conversation starter.

Our favorite mortuary owners have said they might be able to score me a miniature vault. I may have to take them up on it. They also told me that (1) the REAL purpose of the vault is to keep the ground from settling, which helps with appearance and maintenance of a cemetery; (2) all of the vaults do about the same job; and (3) all of them eventually get water in them, so you should bury your Loved One with a snorkel and fins. No need to thank me; when I receive information that valuable, I feel some obligation to pass it along.

There are conventions and expos where manufacturers of caskets, vaults, and the like present their products to the mortuary-owning public. I almost wish, maybe I DO wish, that I could go to one of these, although I might die laughing.


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