It’s Time to Talk About the Death Economy

The disproportionate impact the pandemic has upon our most vulnerable socio-economic families — and the mass graves waiting for them — is reason enough to stop pretending that we can’t talk about death.

Hart Island, NY, captured by drone in April 2020
Hart Island, NY, captured by an Associated Press drone in April 2020

Hart Island has been used as a potter’s field for the homeless, solitary, and sad for over a century and a half, but in April, a drone took photos of new trenches being dug. A crew lowered dozens of simple wood coffins into the hole, arranging boxes like Tetris pieces in horizontal and vertical stacks. The New York Times wrote about the island’s history and what is happening there presently, evoking all the forbidding language we’re used to reading when we talk about death and dying. The scene is described as chilling, unceremonious, grim, dreadful, and morbid. To top it off, the work is performed by inmates — read: slave labor — for $1 an hour.

Without a doubt, the island is home to all those feelings and more, there’s no denying the bleak reality of not just the millions of bodies beneath the surface and floating off shore, but the history too: sanitariums, jails, rehabs that now stand empty and crumbling.

In truth, this disturbing activity happens all the time, nearly every week. Ferries take bodies to the island and lay them in ditches. It’s happened for 100 years. Since it’s out of sight for most, it’s out of mind. It was acknowledged in April thanks to Covid-19’s ravaging assault on New Yorkers. And while there’s no disagreement about the indignity of it all, there’s also not any meaningful discussion around how we can make it stop.

Right now, in Houston, there are refrigerated trucks outside hospitals storing the dead until there is room — or money — for them somewhere else.

A Right Reserved for the Rich

The mass graves represent more than a sad life or tragic ending. They represent our country’s significant inability to care for its people, to actually follow through on ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Our poor and disenfranchised are ignored in life and in death. And as we begin to face the economic realities the pandemic will have on millions of Americans living just above the poverty line already, we have an important decision to make. Will we invest in affordable, dignified, and accessible end of life arrangements for all? Or is that right reserved for the rich, too?

Will we invest in affordable, dignified, and accessible end of life arrangements for all? Or is that right reserved for the rich, too?

Covid-19 amplifies inequality wherever it goes. It’s a mistake to think about it as an equal opportunity illness. Social unrest and revolution has been predicted, and it’s likely that our sustained intolerance for other injustices are driven in part by the changing socio-economic landscape.

Indeed, the less money you make, the less likely you are to be able to work remotely. Lacking savings and health insurance, these workers in precarious employment have to keep their gigs or blue-collar jobs, if they’re lucky enough still to have any, just to make ends meet. As they do, they risk getting infected and bringing the virus home to their families, which, like poor people everywhere, are already more likely to be sick and less able to navigate complex health-care mazes. And so the coronavirus is coursing fastest through neighborhoods that are cramped, stressful and bleak. Above all, it disproportionately kills black people. — Andreas Kluth for Bloomberg

There’s already a significant inequality with regards to end of life care in this country. While we indulge in lots of “anti-aging” and “wellness” commodities, we don’t provide that kind of access and market diversity to death planning. Funeral homes are profit centers run with up-sells and manipulation. In 1963, Jessica Mitford wrote The American Way of Death, exposing the unconscionable travesties of the funeral industry. That greedy monopoly has only gotten worse since the ’60s.

London’s Exit Here funeral parlor interior
London’s Exit Here funeral parlor interior
London’s Exit Here funeral parlor interior

The average funeral and service— assuming you have time or loved ones to plan it — is around $8,000. Most Americans can’t afford $500 they haven’t saved for to fix a broken-down car, how many could possible pay for a funeral? Theirs or someone else’s?

Funeral homes are businesses. This is a multibillion-dollar industry, and while the majority of funeral homes are privately owned, there’s a surprising lack of competition. Service Corporation International is the largest public death care company in the US, with over 1,900 locations in North America and revenue in 2018 of $3.19 billion. The next largest company, StoneMor Partners, made a fraction of that: $316 million. — Nicole Archer for CNET

In Europe, there is an emerging trend, backed by investors, around death tech and in support of death positive approaches to the process — without all the expense and manipulation. This is an encouraging start to, at the very least, find affordable and accessible solutions for death, if not to upend economic inequality at its roots.

The Farewill app (paywall alert) offers simple, affordable creations of wills and flat-rate cremation planning. Y Combinator-backed Willing also offers simple will creation and last wishes planning made easy. For the very wealthy, custom funeral services that could be considered luxury are already a reality. In London, hospitality entrepreneurs are already offering bespoke curations for families like Exit Here.

There is certainly opportunity in the end of life market for significant revolution, and I’m excited for it. Emerging DTC (Direct to Consumer) trends have begun with apps (perhaps not the most accessible option for homeless), but will evolve significantly over the next five years, as a generation of Boomers work to make planning simpler for their children, and the ripple effects of Covid-19 demand something more sustainable than stacking boxes on Hart Island.

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