Eat, drink and be buried

mlb mediumSomewhere out there, a public-relations professional is smiling. Either that, or someone at ESPN reads BusinessWeek online and is a really fast worker. Anyway, click on this ESPN feature -- which I hope is working now.

Then you can either (a) giggle to your heart's content, (b) weep for the end of civilization as we know it, (c) head over to Google and search for "Eternal Image" (or click here) or (d) go straight to the religious sanctuary of your choice and pray like crazy for deliverance from the Baby Boom Generation and its doctrines of radical individualism by means of charge cards.

I suspect that the roots of the ESPN.com material can be found in this BusinessWeek piece -- which is actually quite short, when you consider all of the cultural, economic and spiritual issues involved. Here is part of the top of the "Entrepreneurs breathe new life into the funeral industry" piece by Amy S. Choi:

It's a good time to deal in death. The first baby boomers are entering their mid-60s, and the death rate in the U.S. is expected to rise from 8.1 people per thousand in 2006 to 9.3 in 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Yet the traditional funeral industry is hardly healthy: The Federated Funeral Directors of America, an accounting firm for independently owned funeral homes, found that in the past 20 years, its clients' profit margins have been cut nearly in half. Some 44% of funeral home directors, up from 28% in 2006, blame the increasing popularity of cremations and alternative burials for sinking profits, according to consulting firm Citrin Cooperman. Some funeral homes have responded by offering themed funerals, such as backyard barbecues, while others diversify by hosting weddings and other events.

The story then goes on to document an amazing blurring of the lines between the death industry and the world of entertainment. What else were you thinking? That religion would continue to dominate the final act in the drama of the Woodstock Generation? No way, man.

However, this is where I would fault the story. At some point, there did need to be a hint of transition on the ultimate issues involved in this subject, as opposed to the strictly economic and cultural issues. Am I just being naive? I do realize that Eternal Image (Clint Mytych, founder and CEO) started with a Vatican-approved urn. But it's clear where the future, uh, lies. People want to boldly go where no consumers have ever gone before.

There's more, with the environmental age cross over -- explicitly -- into the world of faith traditions, with a Hollywood hook, of course.

For Esmerelda Kent, the dive into death began with the HBO show Six Feet Under. Fascinated by the funeral business and inspired by the show, the costume designer started an apprenticeship in 2004 at Forever Fernwood, a cemetery in Mill Valley, Calif., that focuses on sustainable burial practices. In keeping with its green goals, Forever Fernwood was burying people in shrouds. "It was a really cumbersome and ridiculous process," says Kent. "We had no idea what we were doing with these long pieces of cloth, and it was really undignified trying to lower the shrouds into the ground." So in 2005 she started San Francisco-based Kinkaraco Green Burial Shrouds, a collection of more practical shrouds with thoughtful touches such as pockets for mementos and a stiff backboard and handles. Kent's next project is a line of high-end shrouds -- "mort couture," she deadpans. She had a warm reception at a recent industry convention, and rang up about $30,000 in sales last year. But Kent says change is barely crawling along. "This is the last industry to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century," she says. "Myself and others like me are completely reinventing the business."

Clearly, religion is in between the lines -- only it is religion rooted in forms of devotion outside of what are traditionally considered religious organizations. Note the role of sports teams in the ESPN piece. Ditto with BusinessWeek.

star trek casket 48You can also hear the reporter struggling for words in the narrated slideshow that does with this magazine package, which had the far superior headline -- "The Graveyard Shift."

The pictures really do tell the story, as do the pauses in the narration. You have to watch it.

So what is the ultimate message in this trend?

First of all, it's not all that new, as you can see by clicking here. I am reminded of a famous memo from the brain trust at the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, focusing on the power of what the firm called "belief brands" in American consumerism. What is a "belief brand"? Think BMW, Calvin Klein, Gatorade, Volvo, Apple, MTV, Starbucks, Nike and Virgin. Think "Sex and the City" montages. Think icons.

It's all a kind of substitute religion in which people consume a powerful product and, thus, become one with its essence and image. They are taking Communion at the mall. That Young & Rubicam report said:

"The brands that are succeeding are those with strong beliefs and original ideas. ... They are also the ones that have the passion and energy to change the world, and to convert people to their way of thinking though outstanding communications."

I kind of think religion has something to do with all of this.

(Hat tip to the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc on the BusinessWeek story)

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