For the past four months, 59 Chicago-area funeral directors and drivers have been locked out of their funeral homes by the corporation that owns them, Texas-based Service Corporation International, or SCI. You may know SCI as the inspiration for Kroehner, the megacorp attempting to buy out the family funeral home on the television show Six Feet Under. One of the locked-out funeral directors has generously agreed to (anonymously) share their story with the Order. The directors are keeping a record of the unfolding events HERE.
For the record, the Order supports & stands behind the suggestions made by this anonymous funeral director.
One thing I never foresaw myself doing was walking a picket line in front of a funeral home with a sign that said “Locked Out by SCI.”
I work for the Texas-based funeral corporation Service Corporation International (SCI), and yes, I am still a current employee. Back in June 2013, SCI sat down with our union to negotiate a new contract. It was a very frustrating time, with the company trying to take away benefits like our pension, health care, and overtime. They made silly changes to the our contracts that stated you could be fired for “being intimidating” or not taking the online training courses, and now only one person would be needed on a home removal (a delicate procedure in the family home, best handled with two people). It was very obvious the company did not want to work out a fair contract with our workers.
So we voted as a group to begin striking on July 2nd. We picketed peacefully and respectfully in front 13 of the 16 funeral homes in the Chicagoland area that were on strike. The funeral homes were still in business, with the managers scrambling to get things done inside with replacement funeral directors that the company flew in from other parts of the country and a few local directors who signed on for temporary work.
On August 19th, we offered to come back to work while the company and the union negotiate a fair contract, SCI/Dignity Memorial said no and we were officially locked out. We had several directors who resigned their membership early in the strike to return to work, they were also locked out of work with this move.
There are 59 funeral directors and drivers affected by this lockout. SCI/Dignity Memorial has met with the union about once a month since July and the contract keeps getting worse than their “Best and Final” offer. The main offense is that SCI wanted to switch contributing to a healthy pension fund to a 401k with a 4 percent match. How can one save for the future with such a sad replacement for a pension? The next month they came back to the table, the contract removed the health care we participate in with the union. We found this abhorrent, we have an amazing preventive health care plan through the union. Now they would like to switch us over to SCI’s health care plan, which ironically comes in three tiers, just like the packages that they offer their families.
There has been very little movement since August really; they met once more in September but no movement on that contract either. There is no future negation date set as of October 21st. We have been picketing for 114 days. I do get offended whenever people refer to SCI as a big “pyramid scheme” or liken us to a bunch of used car sellers. While some may perceive a company like SCI to be evil as a whole, it is the local funeral directors that perform the funerals and become the face to the community. We are not the evil lot in Texas that brings in about 9 million a year, we are your neighbors and friends, and a fraction of what’s left of the middle class. SCI/Dignity Memorial is notorious for underpaying its directors around the country. We are asking to stay with what we had in the last contract; it was actually similar to what other unions in Illinois have negotiated with the smaller family-owned funeral homes that don’t make nearly as much money as SCI.
We need the support of the middle class around the country, we have to help each other fight for what is right. If you can avoid it, DO NOT use an SCI/Dignity Memorial funeral home. The name SCI will be quite small on the sign but it will say “Dignity Memorial,” likely in quite large green lettering. Even if your family member has a pre-need/pre-paid funeral at this SCI funeral home, you can transfer to another funeral home, that money went to a third party for safe keeping, so it can be redeemed at any other funeral home of your choosing.
It’s hard to remember what real human bodies look like anymore. Dodai Stewart at Jezebel has a great piece on how boring the bodies of female pop stars are:
“Call it Naked Hot Body Fatigue. We’re surrounded by images of the flawless female form: Porn, Terry Richardson-shot gym ad campaigns, Victoria’s Secret, Carl’s Jr. commercials, fashion week shows, men’s magazines, women’s magazines. What Miley, Ke$ha and Rihanna are showing off — young, thin, sculpted, low-body fat physiques — are everywhere. The internet is made of them. YOU SEE IT ALL THE TIME. There’s no longer anything remotely “new” about a 20-year-old ass in a thong, about an under-educated twenty-something showing us she has slender inner thighs and no pubic hair. SEEN IT.”
Hey, Ruben’s Three Graces, PUT IT AWAY, ladies. No one wants to see that natural female body being all reality in my face, c’mon.
The same could be said about the dead human body. The modern medical and funeral industries have essentially removed the dead body from daily life. So, if you want to see a real corpse, your only exposure is likely to be images filtered down through popular culture.
Popular culture images of death fall on the extreme edges of the spectrum: either the prettied-up dead (that is to say, OBVIOUSLY living actors in TV crime shows) or the grotesque horror living-dead types.
That’s why it was wonderful to come across these portraits of real dead humans, shot in the Rhode Island morgue, largely in the 1970s, by photographer Jeffrey Silverthorne. They may not be the most fun thing in the world to look at and, like, maybe don’t bust them out at the office Christmas party? BUT–if you live in a world where death is hidden, it’s a wise idea to check in with some real corpses every once and awhile to recalibrate your place in the world.
This is where we are all heading. It may not be immediately “beautiful” to you, but in so many ways beauty is a matter of perception. If we saw real dead bodies more often we would learn to see the beauty in their stillness. The way they remind us to live while we still have a life.
Claire lives in the house next door. Over the last 20 years, we’ve launched ourselves through all that life has offered – travel, marriage, birth, death and all the goodies in between. We share a brain, a passion for good wine, obits, and running (though she’ll debate the last point). I love her to bits. Claire is also married to my brother. While I could have simply stated that Claire is my sister-in-law, you’d be missing some of the essential details about her that aren’t explicit in that label. Sharing our story is more truthful, and I’d argue, more interesting.
OK, more about Claire. A few years ago, her dad, Mike, died. Mike was a chatty Australian who worked for years in the high Arctic and knew something about almost everything. Although he’d been ill for a while, it didn’t dull our shock and grief when he died. So, you can see from my description that Mike’s life and death, though significant to our family, was not something outrageous or provocative. OK, I left out some essential details here too: Mike could make a kick-ass pavlova, he hunted seal from an igloo and he committed suicide.
When it came time for Claire to write her dad’s obituary, she approached it with the same matter-of-fact attitude. She simply stated that Mike “died from depression,” because that was the disease that lead to his death. No scandal, no shame, just truthfulness.
Suicide sucks. It means someone has died before we were expecting it – the worst kind of surprise. But when it comes to someone’s life story, this is purely an ending: no different than a stillbirth, a tumor, or an accident. Regardless of how much we rage, wail, disengage or deny, suicide may be the cause of death, but it doesn’t define the life. We live a lifetime and we die in an instant. A person who chooses to die still has a life story to tell, and their obituary should reflect that balance: all those years of living, and yes, an ending. Like Mike.
Holding back essential details, like say, that someone committed suicide, changes their story. It’s not a true story, and it smells a bit like shame lives there. However, when you read about Mike, knowing he chose to die doesn’t change the significance of his life. It’s more of a footnote. What freedom we offer – to everyone – when we write the truth! People can feel comfortable sharing their condolences, dropping off muffins or commiserating about the good times. So much better that than the alternative of veiled whispers and awkward encounters. Our communities can handle it, I promise, people want to offer compassion.
When someone dies, regardless of the cause, everyone could do with a reminder about the life that came before. An obituary offers the chance to shine the spotlight back on the accomplishments, quirks, and the soul that was the person and now is their memory. We can give them their curtain call. As much as we’d rather that suicide wasn’t the end of the story, it doesn’t mean it’s not a good story.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is pretty terrifying. It is an incurable brain disease that is invariably fatal. Tiny prions (infectious proteins) infect the brain and cause it to take on a spongy texture. Progressively worsening symptoms include dementia, hallucinations, depression, paranoia, and seizures. Its effects have been compared to a human version of mad cow disease. You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy.
Just when you think there is nothing worse than having a loved one contract and die from this rare disease, turns out you have one more thing to worry about — not being able to bury or cremate the body. According to this report by NBC, “across the country, funeral homes and crematoriums are routinely refusing to accept the bodies of CJD patients out of fear of infection, despite health guidelines that say that — with standard precautions — embalming and burial is perfectly safe.”
Oh, it gets worse. Listen to this: “Some families report that their loved ones who died from CJD were removed from the hospital, placed in double body bags and taken directly to a crematorium with no warning. Others tell NBC News that funeral workers forced pallbearers to wear medical gloves and told mourners to stand far back from the gravesite and to disperse quickly after the ceremony.”
That’s some Grade-A time-of-that-plague ignorance on display. “Hear ye, hear ye, stay back from thy plague-ridden bodyie! The clouds of death doth float from it.”
One family featured by NBC told the story of how their father’s body was rejected by four funeral homes in Salt Lake City. Outright rejected. Refused service. Not only did the funeral homes refuse to handle the body so they wouldn’t “risk their health,” they also refused to even cremate the body, “worried that the spores would become airborne.” WHAT. Spores?! That’s like a science-fiction movie. There are no Creutzfeldt-Jakob spores, that’s NOT A THING.
Just in case you weren’t convinced yet, what do you have to say about this, neurology professor at Johns Hopkins? “There’s no known actual risk. Morticians are in no more danger at all than anyone else,” said Dr. Richard T. Johnson, a CJD expert and a neurology professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, in Baltimore, Maryland.
If you’re an Ask a Mortician person (follower, deathling, whatever) you will remember that I recently did a video on why dead bodies are not dangerous.
Maybe I should have screamed or enunciated or something? If funeral homes want to be taken seriously as professional facilities, trained in the art of death, not spouting weirdo pseudo-science about spore-spurtin’ danger-corpses would be an excellent place to start.
No big deal. Just a rosary bead carved in bone, from 1741, informing us that we, too, will die.
There are multiple elements presented here. One side is the face of a young man. The other side is half an older version of the man, half skull. So not only does the man have to face aging, but death as well.
Oh, and by THE MAN, I mean YOU, mortal human.
So many reminders for one bead. Can the bead even handle the pressure of all it represents? You’re only an inch tall! Way to hold it together for the past 250 years, bead.
This piece sold at auction for about €2,000. Not to me. Shame.