The Disposal of Consumers: an Exploratory Analysis of Death-Related Consumption

Terrance G. Gabel, The University of Memphis
Phylis Mansfield, The University of Memphis
Kevin Westbrook, The University of Memphis
ABSTRACT - Complementing and extending recent psychological, sociological, and consumer research on death and its impact on consumer decision making, this exploratory study provides both an additional perspective on the issue of consumer vulnerability and a preliminary examination of meaning associated with death-related consumption.
[ to cite ]:
Terrance G. Gabel, Phylis Mansfield, and Kevin Westbrook (1996) ,"The Disposal of Consumers: an Exploratory Analysis of Death-Related Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 361-367.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 361-367


Terrance G. Gabel, The University of Memphis

Phylis Mansfield, The University of Memphis

Kevin Westbrook, The University of Memphis

The worlds that man constructs are forever threatened by the forces of chaos, finally by the inevitable fact of death... every human order is a community in the face of death. -Peter L. Berger (1990, p. 80)

Death is a great opportunity for the living... -Michael Bliss (1994, p. 160)

When families got the ashes, there was no way of knowing whether they had their husband or wife or a cocker spaniel... At least 30 percent of the time, the ashes at the service belonged to someone else... -Former crematorium employee quoted in Collier and Kelly (1991)


Complementing and extending recent psychological, sociological, and consumer research on death and its impact on consumer decision making, this exploratory study provides both an additional perspective on the issue of consumer vulnerability and a preliminary examination of meaning associated with death-related consumption.


Recently, death and dying research in the fields of psychology and sociology has moved beyond customary consideration of predominantly negative attitudes towards death in the direction of deeper meaning associated with these attitudes. At the same time, at least four important trends have emerged with regard to death and the consumption of death-related products in the United States: 1) the continuing privatization of death, 2) the increasing popularity of goods and services associated in some fashion with death (e.g., angel-related products [see Miller 1994] and prearranged funeral services [see Shermach 1994]), 3) public concerns over alleged unethical marketer behaviors in the funeral-service industry, and 4) forecasted dramatic increases in the numbers of deaths in coming years.

With the exception of the recent work of Gentry (i.e., Gentry et al. 1994 & 1995; Gentry and Goodwin 1995), death-related discussions by marketing and consumer researchers have focused mainly on social marketing efforts aimed at educating consumers about life-threatening behaviors and diseases (e.g., AIDS [see Frankenberger and Sukhdial 1994]). Although Gentry (i.e., Gentry et. al. 1994) deals extensively with the impact of grief associated with the loss of a loved one on post-death consumer decision making, passivity, and subsequent vulnerability and (opportunities for) abuse, relatively little attention has been paid to meanings ascribed to either post-death or pre-need death-related consumption. In response to this neglect, after providing brief historical and theoretical backgrounds of death-related consumption, this study undertakes both an extension of past discussions of vulnerability associated with the consumption of death-related products (i.e., by considering both post-death and pre-need consumption) as well as an exploratory analysis of consumer meaning with respect to such consumption in the United States.


[This section relies heavily on Burns' (1990) "Death in America: A Chronology." In that the original chronology is presented in appendix form with unnumbered pages, the quotations which appear here do not include page numbers. In order to facilitate reader location of citation content in Burn's chronology, the year(s) of occurrence associated with the text are indicated when applicable.]

The historical underpinnings of death-related consumption in the U.S. may be traced to the Puritanical concept of death established around 1630, which depicts death as "deserved for a sinful people" (Burns 1990). Although death-related consumption and exchange (e.g., payment for funeral services and land) no doubt transpired in association with many burials dating back to the arrival of the Pilgrims, the first clear example of the marketing of death-related products appears to have occurred in the late 1740s, when the first known postmortem paintings appeared. In these plague and disease-ridden early years of American history, death-related consumption was undertaken by groups of individuals (i.e., families and entire communities).

Privatization of Death

Community-based death-related consumption and other associated activities found in early American history gradually became more privatized (i.e., individualized and professionalizedCisolated within families and hidden from public view). Although the "privatization of death" was not complete until the early years of the 20th century, this practice was greatly facilitated by the fact that insurance benefits had replaced the aid survivors received from the community and extended family by the end of the 18th century (Burns 1990). Additionally, throughout the 1800s, name changes enhanced the image of many death-related goods and services, with the result of increasing public acceptance of the notion that professionals (e.g., furniture manufacturers, undertakers, and insurance companies) were capable of handling all burial arrangements with little family or community participation. For example, the more pleasing "cemetery" replaced "graveyard" or "burial ground" in 1831. "Coffins" were supplanted by "caskets" in 1859, as was "undertaker" by "funeral director" in 1882. Full-service "funeral homes" first appeared in 1885. By 1910, domestic "parlors," formal rooms in the home used for social meetings associated with death and other occasions, had effectively been transferred from the home to professional service provider facilities. By 1930, the "funeral parlor" had become "the center of care for the dead."

Consumer Vulnerability

Following purchases of homes and automobiles, those of death-related products rank as the third largest expenditure for many consumers (Lino 1990). Unlike other major purchases, those for death-related goods and services occur at times of both new consumption roles (e.g., widow, widower, single-parent) and great anxiety and emotional instability (Gentry et al. 1994, 1995). Add to this the fact that markups of up to 900 percent are charged for death-related goods and services (Lubove 1993) and the issue of consumer vulnerability becomes an important concern.

Unfortunately, there exists a long and rich history of consumer abuse with regard to death-related consumption in the United States. Burns (1990) suggests that the origins of this abuse coincide most directly with the first successful marketing of life insurance in 1830:

Beneficiaries often receive more money than they had ever had at one time... As a result of large sums of money given to beneficiaries at a psychologically vulnerable time, the funeral industry develops lavish funeral rituals.

Consumer rights were again threatened in the mid 1850s when "Cemetery superintendents, by setting rules for burial and for plot decoration, start to exert a powerful role in the death ritual" (Burns 1990). Over the course of the next fifteen years, further control over death-related consumption was wrested from consumers when the first formal associations of both undertakers and cemetery superintendents were formed. These two associations, the Funeral Directors National Association of the U.S. and the Association of American Cemetery Superintendents, "directed the course of the American funeral during the next 75 years." These developments, in conjunction with the simultaneous discovery and public acceptance of embalming, appear to have permanently established the role and influence of professional service providers as dominant in the burial process. This power was so strong that no investigation of death-related product marketing was conducted until 1926, when it was found that "... funeral directors 'charge what the traffic will bear,' and that the poorest families carried the heaviest burden of cost" (Burns 1990). Further, no other "serious attempt at a general study of funeral costs" was undertaken until the mid 1970s, at which time several published investigations of abuse in the industry (e.g., Mitford 1963) led to the availability of "more simplified, cost-conscious funerals."

Consistent with Burns' (1990) account of the rich history of consumer abuse, and in spite a major Federal Trade Commission investigation in 1978 (see Engel 1984), recent reports suggest that such practice is indeed alive and well. As previously discussed, the sheer cost of death-related goods and services, purchased at times of high anxiety and emotional instability, is sufficient to warrant charges of consumer abuse. Although a complete treatment of this topic is well beyond the scope of this discussion, additional reports of abuse associated with death-related consumption include: 1) incomplete or fraudulent information being provided to consumers (Engel 1984; Good 1994; Hildula 1990), 2) the removal of gold teeth and body parts for sale without proper authorization (Torres 1995), 3) tasteless, fear-based advertising (Good 1994), 4) financial improprieties (Conner 1994; Good 1994; Sinclair 1991; Torres 1995), 5) the switching and mixing of (cremated) human ashes with those of animals (Collier 1991; Collier and Kelly 1991), 6) collusion among "traditional" service providers in an effort to competitively harm innovative, low-cost providers (Engel 1984; Hildula 1990; Salerno 1990), 7) conflicts of interest held by industry commissioners (Barnhart and Saville Hodge 1985; Engel 1984), 8) state funeral service commissions repeatedly ignoring consumer complaints (Engel 1984; Miller 1995), and 9) a general and persistent difficulty in getting meaningful consumer protection legislation enacted (Antitrust and Trade Regulation Report 1989; Cain 1994; Collier and Kelly 1991; Connors 1993; Sinclair 1991).


Literature concerning death and bereavement (i.e., "'consolation literature' written by women and clergymen") rose to popularity beginning in 1830 (Burns 1990). While the importance of death has long been recognized by sociological and psychological researchers, studies have tended to focus primarily on negative attitudes held towards death (Holcomb, Neimeyer, and Moore 1993). Consumer researchers (i.e., Gentry et. al. 1994 & 1995; Gentry and Goodwin 1995) have examined diminished decision making skills, consumer passivity, and resultant vulnerability and abuse in the face of grief resulting from the death of a loved one. Recently, sociological and psychological research has begun to address additional issues relevant to the study of death from a consumer or consumption perspective. Topics of particular importance include both the privatization and meaning of death.

Privatization of Death

From a sociological perspective, Mellor and Shilling (1993) suggest that the ongoing privatization of death has achieved particular significance due to three characteristics of modern society: 1) the growing role played by the reflexive re-ordering of biographical narratives in the construction of self-identity, [With regard to this modern phenomenon, Mellor and Shilling (1993), p. 413) state that "... self- identity is now something constructed through continual re-ordering of self-narratives" and provide as an example therapies, life-guides, and self-help movements which "clearly assist large numbers of people in constructing and reconstructing their life narratives in order to establish a reliable 'sense of self' in the context of a seemingly hostile and threatening world."] 2) increased identification of the self with the body, and 3) consistent with the perspective of Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989), the diminished scope of the sacred. With regard to the first two points, Mellor and Shilling contend that, due to both decreasing requirements for the legitimation of reality and increasing confusion and anxiety, death is increasingly viewed by relatively isolated individuals as a "powerful threat." Pertaining to the diminished scope of the sacred, the authors (p. 416) state that:

... with the decline of traditional religious belief, and the attendant desacralisation of death, there was even less of an impulse to keep it in the public domain... The death itself will frequently be greeted with few ritual, religious and communal signs of mourning other than a funeral.

In summary, Mellor and Shilling (1993, p. 417) contend that:

... the processes of individualisation and privatisation leave many people uncertain, socially unsupported, and vulnerable when it comes to dealing with death.

From a consumer perspective, vulnerability is increased due to the fact that less (family or communal) thought and planning now go in to death-related consumption decision making. As a consequence, consumers may make quickCif not also rashCdecisions.

Meaning of Death

The privatization of death in modern American society suggests that death may no longer be as meaningful as it once was in that rich familial and communal meaning now exists as an isolated phenomenon (Mellor and Shilling 1993). Contrast the following passages, the first documenting the relative shallowness of meanings more commonly ascribed to death, and the second describing the more richly detailed meaning of "decoration day" activities still routinely practiced in Blue Ridge Mountain communities:

Relationships that are lovingly complex during life become reduced to package deals. As a society, we've lost the knowledge of caring for our own dead. People feel that they are unable to do anything for a departed friend except spend money. So they spend as much money as they can, and then, after the event, feel unfulfilled as well as broke (Carlson 1991, p. 80).

There is hardly a summer Sunday in any area that is not some family's decoration day... On decoration day, the preachers and singers situate themselves in a visible spot and begin to preach and sing as people arrive with baskets of fresh flowers and food. The graves are soon heaped with a blaze of color and care is taken so that no grave is slighted... When I was a child, my favorite decoration day fell in early September when chinquapins were ripe and the late summer days were fading into harvest. We were always invited to the Woody family decoration... the Woody decoration had a beautiful ritual built into the day's structure that was unique (Wiseman Boulton 1991, pp. 81-82).

With the first passage, lack of meaning is directly linked with capitalistic tendencies not only to act in opportunistic fashionCon the part of the marketerCbut also to perceive the spending of money as the solution to most, if not all, problemsCon the part of the consumer. Here, the meaning of death reduced to the spending of money, possibly in order to symbolically demonstrate how much one cared for the deceased or avoid the stigma associated with a "cheap funeral," has prompted Hyde (1983, p. 45) to suggest that:

... For those who believe in transformation (either in this life or another), ideologies of market exchange have become associated with the death that goes nowhere... The parking lots and aisles of discount stores may be where the restless dead of a commodity civilization will tread out their numberless days.

From a more academic perspective, in their extensive content analysis study of free-form response elicitation with regard to the meaning of death, Holcomb, Neimeyer, and Moore (1993) find that the presence or absence of a "personal philosophy of death" is highly instrumental in the perceptual construction of death. The authors find that persons who profess to hold a coherent philosophy view death as more purposeful, expected, and as involving some form of continued existence. On the other hand, findings indicate that those lacking a personal philosophy tend to view death negatively, and exhibit low levels of both death acceptance and understanding. Although Holcomb, Neimeyer, and Moore (1993) do not discuss the meaning of death from a consumer behavior perspective, their findings do indicate that death-related studies in general should assess meanings above and beyond mere negative (or other) attitudes towards death, stating (p. 316) that: "... there is a need to complement... standardized measures with other methods that permit subjects to disclose their perspectives on death in their own words."


Consistent with but in much more exploratory fashion than other consumer researcher efforts to capture and portray consumption-related meaning (e.g., Hirschman 1992; O'Guinn and Faber 1989; Schouten 1991; Thompson et al. 1990), in-depth consumer interviews, ranging in length from one to two hours, were conducted by all members of the three-person research team. Also, a four-hour interview with "Vince," a former industry employee with nearly 20 years of diverse experience, was undertaken to further explicate abuses and vulnerabilities associated with the provision of funeral services in the U.S. The level of interview structure evolved from totally unstructured to semi-structured in nature as data collection and analysis progressed. In accord with Spiggle's (1994) notion of "iterative data collection," this evolution in level of structure was iteratively based, with (structured) questions asked in later interviews being based on issues emerging in earlier (unstructured) interviews. Consumer informants included:

1. "Alice," a white female in her late 50s who had recently been in charge of arranging funeral services for both of her parents,

2. "Bill," a white male in his early 40s recently responsible for the arrangement of funeral services for his late father,

3. "Celeste," a white female in her early 40s in charge of burial arrangements for her father who had died in an automobile accident, and

4. "Robert," a white male in his mid 60s who had, within the last five years, engaged in a variety of death-related consumption activities including the arrangement of funeral services for several relatives, as well as for himself and his wife, the latter in prearranged form.

Three of these four informants engaged in their death-related consumption in two adjoining southern states in mid-sized and larger cities. The final consumer informant's experiences took place in a small Midwestern community. In that our informants discussed experiences relating to both pre-need and post-death (i.e., after the death of a loved one) consumption, our research differs from the work of Gentry (Gentry et al. 1994 & 1995; Gentry and Goodwin 1995), which deals exclusively with post-death phenomenon. As a result, our study seeks to gain a preliminary understanding of death-related consumption experiences not only of consumers making important, unfamiliar decisions under conditions of grief, but also the experiences of consumers trying to avoid such situations.

All consumer interviews were tape-recorded with the expressed permission of individual informants. Analysis was conducted in iterative fashion by all members of the three-person research team. Not only was the initial analysis of each interview iteratively analyzedCto guide both future data collection and analysisCbut, in accord with Hirschman (1992) and Thompson et al. (1989, 1990), each interview transcript was reviewed by multiple researchers after the development of global themes based on initial data analysis and interpretation. Consumer meaning in this context was assessed by seeking patterns across: 1) the meanings and experiences of individual informants, and 2) the interpretationsCof informant meaning and experienceCof individual researchers (see Spiggle 1994). In that Vince requested that his interview not be recorded, his insights were documented via the taking of detailed notes by one researcher which were then transcribed (by the interviewer) and analyzed and interpreted (by all members of the research team).


consumer Abuse and Vulnerability

Consumer informants largely echoed those issues discussed in extant reports, with particular emphasis on a lack of consumption alternatives and financial and other transactional improprieties. However, our interview with Vince is most informative in this regard. In a most general sense, Vince views the funeral service industry as characterized by a high level of collusion among large, powerful "traditional" (i.e., high-priced and opportunistic) organizations. He stated that:

This is business, it's not loving and sharing like it's thought to be. Making money is the whole thing... Its merely a religious facade... The funeral directors and prearrangers are set up on a bonus plan to facilitate sales. This drives selling more products and getting the money from the family then and there.

In addition to these general comments, Vince's discussion tended to center aroundCand add detail toCthe following topics previously identified as being exemplary of abuses and vulnerability associated with death-related consumption.

Incomplete or Fraudulent Consumer Information. Vince informed us in great detail of how he perceives there to be a negligent lack of consumer information disclosure. He stated that funeral homes regularly fail to voluntarily inform the consumer that neither embalming nor vaults are required under state law. If the consumer is to become knowledgeable in these matters, they must do so of their own initiative, a scenario which our informant described as rare given the consumer's psychological state. With regard to these issues as well as the practice of taking advantage of the time pressures faced by grieving consumers, Vince informed us that:

The funeral home withholds this information because they can pick up an additional $350 for the (embalming) service... Most of the time, the customer does not want to ask or be informed. They don't want to face death nor think about having to face death... We always want to create time pressures... The philosophy is to get them in there and get them out as fast as possible... A lot of family members are tired at the death. They have been up late while the person died at the hospital. The trick is to get them down at the funeral home first thing in the morning to work out all the details. They are more vulnerable and in shock and will make quicker decisions.

One manner in which these highly pressured, "quick decisions" might be avoided is by means of pre-arrangement of burial services. However, Vince's opinions with regard to industry practice here likewise sheds light on consumer abuse and vulnerability. He stated that selling pre-arranged services is particularly effective directly after the death of a family member, partly due to the fact that cognitive dissonance over overpaying has yet to set in:

We know that if we can market to a consumer three weeks after the death of a family member, we got them because death is on their mind... We used to ask people that had funeral services in the past when they would sit down and realize they had spent too much on the service. People usually say about three weeks to a month later... So you hit them quick after the funeral to get them in to make other arrangements...

Industry Collusion. Based on his diverse experience, Vince also described in detail his perceptions of rampant industry collusion leading to restricted consumer choice. Consistent with popular press reports (i.e., Engel 1984; Hildula 1990; Salerno 1990), it is his opinion that funeral directors and industry associations are opposed to the introduction of nontraditional (i.e., low-cost retail) funeral services. Further, he claims that large conglomerate organizations which own many funeral homes and cemeteries across the nation "blackball" discount providers by: 1) directly contacting manufacturers of caskets and threatening them that business from the large organizations will cease if goods are sold to discount retailers, and 2) assessing surcharges on services in which caskets were not purchased at the funeral home. Moreover, he stated that he feels that funeral homes "taint" the business of discount retailers through both slander and outright sabotage.

Exorbitant Pricing. On average, our consumer informants stated that they had spent in the range of $5,000 to $7,000 on the burial of family members, a figure consistent with other reported estimates (e.g., Hildula 1990; Lino 1990). Although Vince's discussion of rapacious pricing in the industry ran the full gamut of goods and services offeredCdespite marginal differences in qualityCtwo issues of particular importance to our purposes involve high markups on product accessories and discrimination against members of lower socioeconomic classes. Regarding markups, Vince's discussion of casket mattresses is most instructive:

If you look at the mattress, there are two kinds. The more expensive casket (mattress) usually will have some type of spring-like mechanism. People don't realize that the person is dead and it doesn't matter... Of course, they want mamma to be comfortable... I've seen as much as $1,000 to change out the mattress... It only costs me about $10, but the customer is happier.

With respect to members of lower socioeconomic classes being discriminated against, Vince stated that, to his surprise, he has found that discount retailer clientele consists mainly of upper-class individuals more knowledgeable of product alternatives and the marginal nature of product quality differences. Further, he also informed us that minority customers in general tend to pay more for caskets because the features they require for religious and other reasons are not commonly included in standard (U.S.) product designs. As a result, caskets for minority individuals often must be modified or custom-made at significant cost to the consumer.

Meanings of Consumption

The findings and discussions of Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry (1989), Burns (1990), and Mellor and Shilling (1993) all suggest that meanings associated with death-related consumption in modern American society can be expected to be less rich (e.g., consist of less sacred or community-based content) than in earlier times. Although our cross-sectional study cannot claim to assess this hypothesized shift, it does aspire to provide a preliminary, exploratory analysis of meanings ascribed to death-related consumption.

Overall, while only one of our informantsCBillCdiscussed his or her experience(s) in predominantly positive and rewarding fashion, our exploratory findings suggest three interrelated categories of consumption meaning.

Peace of Mind. In both pre-need and non-pre-need death-related consumption contexts, feelings regarding attainment of "peace of mind" were expressed by consumer informants. From the pre-need perspective, Robert's security motivations were readily apparent as he told us how he had sought to avoid problems he had witnessed others beset by as a result of waiting to the last minute to make burial arrangements:

The one (private cemetery) I'd like to go to is the one they have all the problems with. They don't take care of the graves. They sell the whole cemetery to somebody different... and then they got new owners that don't honor the contracts. I went to the (public) city cemetery, which sounded like the best deal, but they can't guarantee where you go; can't guarantee who's going to be buried by you.

Post-death consumption likewise involves security motivations and meanings. For example, two comments made by Alice, the first regarding burial clothing chosen for the deceased and the second with respect to criteria used in casket selection, are instructive:

... it was really comforting because during visitation many of the people had said 'Oh your daddy looked so neat in that coat'... So its funny how little things like that can be reassuring to you.

We had agreed that when mother died that we wanted something appropriate, yet we were not going to get the most deluxe thing. My sister had a phobia about metal caskets that they looked cold to her. So we had selected a wood casket for mother. It had a peach lining in it. We decided we would go with the same thing with daddy. Of course, it had cream lining, which was more appropriate for a man.

Similarly, Celeste expressed her frustrations in her search for peace of mind through death-related product consumption:

... my parents had bought cemetery plots several years before... I do remember the headstone. We didn't get the headstone for like a year or a year and a half. And it was very expensive. My mother wanted to take time to think about it and she did want to shop around a little bit... But you know, the cemetery would only accept certain kinds... and she ended up going through the cemetery... It was kind of strange, because if you went back to visit the gravesite... you had to search for it. The only reason we knew where it was was that there was a little dogwood tree planted close to the site.

Finally, Bill, in discussing not wanting to put his deceased father in "the cheapest casket" available, alluded to latent peace-of-mind consumption meaning when asked what criteria he had used to make the casket purchase:

Cost mostly, also looks/general appearance. I was interested in costs because my dad did not have very much life insurance and I knew that I was going to be responsible for the remaining bill... I did not buy the cheapest casket, but bought the cheapest casket that looked okay.

Practitioners are well aware of the fact that consumers seek peace of mind through death-related product consumption. Unfortunately, while the majority of product providers cater to this need in a positive manner, some may view the opportunity differently. According to Vince:

Men are easiest to sell to. They come and usually are emotional and feel guilty... like they haven't spent enough time or money in the past and they buy expensive caskets for their spouse or mother. Especially if the mother has been in the nursing home and the son hasn't gone and visited there for a long time and he wants the 'best' for mamma... like he's on a guilt trip. Also people who have been in an accident or a young person, the family tends to spend moreClike they are compensating for the tragedy... People buy caskets because of what people think. All this is emotional bull. We cater to the emotional satisfaction of people. They need a peace of mind.

The Search for Trust. Consistent with the observations of Gentry et al. (1994), consumers, in their quest for peace of mind via death-related consumption, typically search for individuals upon whom they can depend. In this context, the issue of the product provider being perceived as someone who can be trusted by "helping the consumer" with necessary yet "tedious" activities (e.g., dealing with other intermediary good or service providers) versus taking advantage of this situation arises. Bill, Alice, and Celeste all mentioned that the funeral homes they had dealt with offered to mail in life insurance checks on their behalf, ridding them of the possibly unpleasant task of dealing with the insurance company. Bill spoke of these services in highly positive fashion and as a factor in his choice of service providers. However, as most particularly discussed by Celeste, although the consumer is relieved of this task, it also assures that the funeral home will be paid and further raises the possibility for abuse in that the financial transactions which transpire do so with limited consumer monitoring and control. Further, as she told us, she was distressed by the fact that funeral home personnel knew the amount of their life insurance benefit and seemed determined to get her and her grieving mother to spend the full amount. On this and other issues related to the trust that she was frustrated in finding, Celeste informed us that:

One thing I remember is that they knew we had an insurance policy for like $15,000 because it was an accidental death and we were almost led to believe, 'Well, you've got that much money...' Whenever I would say anything about price, they would refer to that. They would refer to the fact that we had that much insurance... Because we had the insurance policy, they pretty much knew they were going to get the moneyClike within 30 days... I do remember in the casket showroom. We went down to the basement and there was a room of probably like 20 caskets and they would go through explaining each one but the prices weren't on them. You had to ask each time and they had to tell you. In a way, that made me kind of upset, because I felt like they could have adjusted the prices depending on how much money they knew you had.

Fear, Avoidance, and Expediency. Consistent with Gentry et al.'s (1994) contention that consumers avoid post-death transactions, and in spite of meanings associated with the search for trust and peace of mind, death-related consumption is to be avoided, with as little time as possible being spent on decision making. Although our informants seemed reluctant to discuss fear, avoidance, and expediency, these feelings were at least briefly alluded to or implied in many of the interviews. Celeste, when asked if she felt a need to end the decision-making process in an expedient manner, stated: "Definitely, as soon as we could... Just get out of there." Similarly, Alice told us that:

I think most people are terrified of death... and it's something you want to shove to the back of your mind and put off... Daddy had died on early Monday morning and we felt that if we could go ahead and have the visitation on Tuesday night and have the service on Wednesday that would be better... Giving everyone time to get there and then to go ahead and get it done... There was not a lot of discussion.

Summary of Consumer Meanings. Consideration of these three areas of consumer meaning, along with individual consumer responses, leads to a final and somewhat troubling observation. Alice, who exhibits the richest, most intense meaning in her consumption experience as expressed in her strong pursuit of both "trust" and "peace of mind," also seems the most willing to rationalize away negative, if not possibly abusive, consumption episodes as either "honest mistakes" or acceptable/normal marketer behavior. For example, in response to the funeral director appearing to have pre-established which services would be provided, while stating that: "More or less he said, 'This is what we will do'," in contrast to other informants faced with similar situations, she expressed no concern whatsoever. Troubling here is the notion that those consumers who derive the richest meaning from death-related consumption may also be the most vulnerable to abuse.


Based on Buddhist thought, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Thurman 1994) emphatically proposes that we, as humans, create, and therefore subject ourselves to, the fear of death. However, based on our exploratory findings, in capitalistic U.S. society, marketplace factors appear to create (consumption-related) fear above and beyond that originating and dwelling solely in the human imagination. Whereas Mellor and Shilling (1993, p. 428) contend that "In relation to death... it can be argued that modernity... has emptied tradition, ritual and, increasingly, virtually all overarching normative meaning structures of much of their content," we would add, borrowing from Carlson (1991), that modernity has also effectively emptied the pockets of many consumers to an excessive degree, in large part due to a lack of consumer choice. Further, in similar fashion, whereas Mellor and Shilling (1993, p. 417) state that the "... processes of individualisation and privatisation leave many people uncertain, socially unsupported, and vulnerable when it comes to dealing with death," we submit the following from a consumer research perspective: The processes of individualization, privatization, and greed leave many consumers uncertain, socially unsupported, vulnerable, abused and broke when it comes to dealing with death in contemporary American society. Consumer desires to hasten the death-related acquisition and consumption process often play directly into the opportunistic designs of funeral service providers. Add to our findings the fact that record numbers of U.S. consumers will be both dying and purchasing death-related products in the next twenty to thirty years (Bliss 1994; Kirkland 1994), and the critical need for public policy to address the death-related consumption issues becomes clear.

Public Policy Implications

Although in strong agreement with Gentry et al.'s (1994) public policy discussion and recommendations, our perspective prescribes a more activist and collectivist role for consumers of death-related products. Changing current patterns of consumption and abuse in modern American society demands substantive legal reform and educational programs aimed at altering perceptions of the role of professional death-related goods and services providers. In order to curb consumer abuse and vulnerability associated with consumption, new laws should be developed, with more active consumer representation and input, which both lessen the likelihood of opportunistic behavior and encourage competition among goods and service providers. However, this alone will not likely be sufficient. In order to still better guard against the continuation of abuse and vulnerability, programs aimed at extensive consumer education with regard to product availability, industry laws, and alternative burial arrangements are called for. Perhaps most importantly, the fostering of greater opportunities for increased familial and communal caring of the dead should be a top priority. One manner in which this goal may be pursued entails programs aimed at creating what Ozanne and Murray (1995) refer to as "reflexively defiant" (i.e., radically critical) consumers who actively question existing economic, political, and social structures. Further, consistent with Alwitt's (1995) call for the formation of small buying groups of poor consumers, it is suggested here that vulnerable consumers of death-related goods and services likewise form inter-family or community-based alliances to ensure themselves greater marketplace power.

Limitations and Future Research

While this study both extends previous consumer research on vulnerability associated with the consumption of death-related goods and services and introduces the notion of consumption meaning in this context, it is highly exploratory in at least two respects. First, with regard to our discussion of consumer meaning, our small sample of informants consists exclusively of white, middle-class Americans. As a result, the generalizability of our findings to other consumers, most particularly members of other cultures and subcultures, is restricted. Similarly, although our research differs from the work of Gentry and his colleagues by including a consideration of consumption activities associated with pre-needCrather than exclusively post-deathCdeath-related consumption, our findings are based on a very small sample size. Future research efforts investigating the consumption of death-related products should further these important limitations of the current research.


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