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Death and taxes -- and a funeral and a casket? Maybe, maybe not.

September 04, 2013|By Paul Thornton
  • The hefty price tags for caskets has led many people to opt for cremation instead of a traditional burial. Above, a state inspector looks over a price list for caskets at a mortuary in Palm Desert.
The hefty price tags for caskets has led many people to opt for cremation… (Los Angeles Times )

Open casket or closed? Cremation or burial? The answers to these questions about what to do after a loved one dies are seldom met with criticism or even much of a reaction. The questions are matter-of-fact, sometimes asked by someone who wants to prepare himself emotionally before paying his final respects. It would be unconscionable, for example, for someone to berate the bereaved for buying the priciest, most luxurious casket.

Longtime undertaker Thomas Lynch, whose Op-Ed article on Sunday noted the increasing prevalence of cremations and memorial services -- where seemingly everyone was welcome except for the dead -- strays into critical territory on this subject. Though Lynch deftly balances this criticism with an underlying respect for the decisions made by the grieving, several readers were put off by his implying that a memorial service minus the memorialized leaves something to be desired.

(An aside: For anyone who wants a poignant perspective on death and the rituals we perform to make sense of the inevitable, I recommend reading Lynch's book, "The Undertaking," or watching the eponymous "Frontline" documentary.)

About a dozen readers sent letters responding to Lynch's piece, many of them impassioned defenses of the memorial services they held for their own loved ones; a few agreed with Lynch.  Here are two of those letters.

Laura Sines of Los Angeles says Lynch "mocks" memorial services:

"Lynch doesn't mention that the funeral industry is a for-profit business. The more 'accessories and knicknacks' that a funeral director can sell you, the more money he makes. The total price for an embalming, the casket, the viewing, a headstone, the burial plot, grave liners and so on can be tens of thousands of dollars.

"Nothing much has changed in the funeral industry since 1963. Lynch uses the very same tactics that Jessica Mitford wrote about in 'The American Way Of Death'; he implies that cremation and memorial services aren't 'good funerals' and that those who choose this less-expensive path show disrespect to the dead. 

"I cannot disagree more. My mother died last month. Per her wishes, we chose to have her cremated and we honored her in a private memorial service, the method that Lynch mocks. His bad funeral was our good funeral."

Culver City resident Linda Shahinian says the deceased deserve to be present:

"Coming from an ethnic tradition where death includes religious services, caskets, burial plots and somber, thoughtful departures, I was grateful for Lynch's piece on the new American way of death.

"We each have an entire lifetime for 'celebrations of life' and should take advantage of those years to enjoy and appreciate families and friends. Death, presumably, comes only once, and that event should be given the weight it deserves.  

"Leaving out the deceased seems like the Twitter way of death -- brief replacing grief."

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