NYRM2008
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PlentyMortuary Management

Circulation: 10,500
Date of Birth: 1914
Frequency: Monthly
Price: $39.00 per year
Natural Habitat: Lying between a corpse and a viscera bag

By Anna King

Apparently, necrophilia is legal in Wisconsin. The state’s Court of Appeals ruled recently that having sex with a corpse isn’t a violation of the state’s sexual-assault laws. This is just one of the many tidbits that readers can glean from recent issues of Mortuary Management, published by Abbott and Hast Publications, for those who work with the dead: funeral directors, embalmers and the manufacturers who provide coffins, furnaces, eyelid holders and other assorted products and props for the deceased.

Given its subject matter, and the fact that it’s a trade publication that doesn’t have to vie for attention at newsstands, Mortuary Management isn’t flashy looking. The layout and fonts are probably not dissimilar from the ones used for the first issue back in 1914. It runs around 50 pages per issue, and its articles generally appear without accompanying photos or illustrations, except for a thumbnail-sized picture of the author. Instead, the text is broken up by advertisements—editorial content accounts for only about half of the pages of a typical issue. Each month, the cover features a benign shot of a scene from nature, captured in the relevant season, making it look more like a lifestyle magazine for the Berkshires than a publication about death.

Mortuary Management is, like its readership, skilled in the arts of euphemism and understatement. The advertisements show photos of the latest cremation furnaces and bright lines of cosmetics for the deceased, but the dead themselves are nowhere in sight. Morticians are referred to as “restorative artists,” while “pre-need clients” means “not dead yet.” “Pre-arranged death care” refers to the art of persuading those among the living to think about their funerals years ahead of their actual, inevitable demise.

The most exciting part of the magazine is the “News Briefs” section, a roundup of funereal crimes and misdemeanors. In Pittsburgh, a funeral director was tried for abusing a corpse after the remains of 19 fetuses were found in his garage. A funeral director in Newport, Ark., was accused of plotting to kill the town’s mayor. In Orlando, a man punched and attacked a body in an open casket at a funeral. The corpse of a Philadelphian was plundered at a funeral home for bone-and-tissue transplant material, without the consent of her family.

The magazine generally contains seven or eight feature pieces, written by a mix of staff writers, freelancers and the occasional industry specialist. Recent topics include a list of best embalming techniques, legal issues for crematorium operators, funereal flowers, tips to get money in advance from grieving relatives before funeral services commence and, somewhat strangely, a how-to guide about Google. It’s hard not to imagine funeral directors, in top hats and tails, being stuck in some pre-internet age, inhabiting as they do the land of the dead and the past, not the future. The writer, Robin Heppell, welcomes them into the land of the living. He refers to himself as a “Funeral Futurist,” and he even explains some of that tricky web jargon: “People type in the company’s URL (website address) into the Search Bar instead of the Address bar.”

There’s also a “Recent Deaths” column, showing that even the servants of the Grim Reaper get called to account eventually. Most of them seem to make it into their 70s or 80s, and some into their 90s, suggesting that perhaps they entered into Faustian pacts.

At the Death Care Web Store, a company advertised in Mortuary Management and owned by its publisher, the interested consumer can buy small die-cast toy hearses and ambulances. These offers run alongside paid advertisements for “viscera bags” (in which to store soft internal organs during the embalming process) and keepsake pennants that hold “a small portion of cremated remains, a lock of hair or dried ceremonial flowers.” A company called Ink After Life offers portraits of deceased loved ones, with some of their cremation ashes mixed into the ink.

Mortuary Management offers a peek into a world whose inhabitants are so absorbed by death that they have a strange relationship with the living. I used a family-run funeral home to bury three relatives in recent years. By now, I’m on first-name terms with everyone in the office. When I told Keith, a fourth-generation undertaker, that my father had died, he said “Congratulations,” and shook my hand.



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Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
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