Tuesday, April 18, 2006


Death Defied

“The American Way of Death,” was a non-fiction book by Jessica Mitford. The funeral industry hated it. “The Loved One,” was a novel by Evelyn Waugh. The funeral industry hated it. The industry honchos must be gloating, now.

The cult of the undeath. I don’t understand it: it’s like the ultimate fantasy of being able to construct future history. As if people will see these tombs and say, “Ahh, old so-and-so was such an important person!” Every man a U.S. Grant or a Jefferson, maybe. What a waste.

One of the ongoing struggles for Native peoples is the protection of their burial sites and the repatriation of the remains of their ancestors. Museums hold thousands of remains, still. Private collectors still loot burials: burial items and bones are big on the black market. In the last few years, I can think of a half-dozen "burial grounds" that have dug up, legally. The tribes fight, but all to often the locations are turned into freeway off-ramps, subdivisions, highway projects, and strip malls. There's a malicious part of me that would like to see Mr Ed Peck's mausoleum become a parking lot. Particularly since he made his money as a "developer."

The New York Times

April 17, 2006
For a Price, Final Resting Places That Even Tut Could Appreciate


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ed Peck is in no hurry to get there, but when the time comes for him to go to eternity, he wants his last earthly stop to be consistent with his social station.

So Mr. Peck, a real estate developer who made his fortune in Florida condominiums in the 1970's, not long ago joined a small but growing number of Americans who have erected that most pharaonic of monuments to life-in-death, the private family mausoleum.

A Greek-pillared neo-Classical style structure of white granite, Mr. Peck's mausoleum has a granite patio, a meditation room, doors of hand-cast bronze and a chandelier. The family name is carved and gilded above a lintel that in the original sales model carried the legend "Your Name."

Developed just over two years ago to accommodate a growing demand for mausoleums like the one Mr. Peck bought, which including its lot has a retail cost of $400,000, the Private Estate Section at the century-old Daytona Memorial Park here has 15 lake-view lots. Six have been sold.

"The mausoleum says, 'I'm really significant in this world, I think I'm really significant to my family,' and this is one way to communicate that to the community," said Nancy Lohman, an owner along with her husband, Lowell, of this and several dozen other Florida cemeteries and funeral homes.

Mr. Peck, 87, an Atlanta native with a sonorous voice and a laconic manner, framed a similar thought more modestly. "It began to occur to me that I did not want to be in the ground covered with weeds and whatnot and totally forgotten," he said. "I don't like the idea of dirt being dumped on me."

Six feet up and not six feet under is increasingly the direction in which people want their remains stored when they die, representatives of the funeral industry say. In addition to custom single-family mausoleums, community mausoleums for both coffins and cremated remains are also gaining popularity; in classical or contemporary styles, these often have room to hold hundreds of niches for coffins or urns.

The Cold Spring Granite Company, among the country's largest makers of cemetery monuments, sold 2,000 private mausoleums last year, up from about 65 during a good year in the 1980's. Prices range from $250,000 to "well into the millions," said Michael T. Baklarz, a vice president of the company.

The development is perhaps logically to be expected of those at the leading edge of the baby boom generation, which forms the bulk of the market. The progression seems natural for the folks who gave the world blocklong, gas-hogging sport utility vehicles and lot-hogging 40,000-square-foot suburban homes.

"It's in keeping with the McMansion mentality of boomers," said Thomas Lynch, an author and funeral director in Michigan. "Real estate is an extension of personhood."

The market for the custom structures is greatest on the coasts, although exclusive estate sections have recently been set aside for private mausoleums at cemeteries in Atlanta, Cleveland and Minneapolis.

Some mausoleums echo the temple of the goddess Fortuna Virilis in Rome. Some are hefty, rusticated stone barns. Some have more square footage than a good-size Manhattan studio apartment, their interiors fitted out with hand-knotted carpets, upholstered benches and nooks for the display of memorabilia. In late 2004, a Southern California family ordered a mausoleum with room for 12 coffins, 20 cremation niches and a patterned marble vestibule.

Commonplace in the 19th century, when both newly prosperous immigrants and robber barons vied to stake claims on American soil by investing in the only real estate that is "permanently valuable," as Mark Twain famously remarked, the mausoleum seemed to have lost favor in recent years.

More people were choosing to be cremated — industry experts say that more than a quarter of the 2.3 million people who died in 2004 were cremated — and some opted for new forms of interment like the "green burials" that flickered onto the cultural radar after a character from the HBO series "Six Feet Under" was buried unembalmed and without a coffin, in an unmarked grave protected by a nature preserve.

Yet the brief buzz about eco-burial, executives from America's nearly $15 billion funeral industry say, may obscure the larger reality that, as in seemingly every other facet of contemporary life, the taste for personalization has touched the funeral industry in time to provide an otherwise static business with an opportunity for growth.

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