(Part of the “Self/Systems of Meaning Blog,” by Clara de Castro, Henry Hauser, and Michael Njauw)
Let’s face it. Death is grim. It’s a grim prospect we all have to face. It appears, at least from this side of it, as the final loss of the self, or at least the transformation of that self into something very different – something separate form its earthly vessel. In a sense, if there exists a way for an individual to escape from capitalism in the 21st century, then it is death. But in another sense, even this is not an escape. Because no matter where we go after we die, there is a part of us – our bodies – that stays right here for our friends, family, and capitalism to deal with. In this light, we’ll explore in this post the topic of death under 21st-century capitalism in relation to the social theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber. Let’s get started:
What Marx might say:
The natural inclination of capitalism to create commodities is touched upon in Capital. Marx remarks upon the system’s astounding ability to transform anything into commodities. One of the most significant examples is the commodification of the labor. Laborers sell their labor as a commodity to the property-owners who employ these laborers to work on specific objects to valorize capital. The transaction between the laborer and the owner results in part of the laborer’s self stripped away. A laborer’s activity is a part of his existence, and having sold his own labor and ability to determine his activity is in a sense selling part of his self to a dominating force.
In a sense, this commodification of labor represents the transformation of the laborers’ bodies into instruments through which capital can be created, at the expense of the self. As it turns out, under 21st-century capitalism, our bodies remain instruments for making money even after the self is separated from them. Los Angeles based start-up, Parting.com helps match consumers with products and services for the deceased, ranging from funeral ceremonies to casket prices. It seems that capitalism has somehow managed to monetize death. Death has become a means of generating profit and the way and style in which a person dies, and is celebrated once they die, is commodified. Take the embalming service, which costs a whopping $650, as an example. It is simply a service that preserves the body long enough to appear in perfect condition at the wake and the funeral. This trend of the commodification of the deceased can perhaps be seen more strikingly in a recent New York Times article titled “Transporting the Dead: A Booming but Lightly Regulated Industry.” The article describes a “proliferating group of independent entrepreneurs capitalizing on the need to collect the dead from houses, hospitals, morgues and accident scene.” As this article shows, under capitalism, the need to transport bodies from these locations to the proper locations for the funerals and burials – rituals rooted not in economic activity but in cultural and often spiritual traditions – becomes a vehicle through which money can be made. In this process, our bodies, as the objects that used to house our now-deceased selves, become mere commodities.
What Weber might say:
Companies like Parting have industrialized one of the most human and intimate practices. How someone mourns the dead is no longer a result of cultural tradition but a result of rational and calculated frugality.
This can be seen as the manifestation of Weber’s description of the life-activity of those who subscribe to the spirit of capitalism, in that “man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of life” (18). To make money and to have money for the sake of having money seems, on the surface, very illogical. Protestants, whose ethical traditions ultimately formed the spirit of capitalism, were charged to live each day laboring. A day not spent working is a day wasted. To not work, one is not living in the Glory of God, but one should not strive for more money. Weber describes this paradox of working and therefore making money all day without actively pursuing money as, “If God show you a way in which you may lawfully get more than in another way (without wrong to your soul or any other), if you refuse this, and choose the less gainful way, you cross one of the end of your calling, and you refuse to be God’s steward” (108). If a Protestant does not take full advantage of opportunities to be industrious, make money, and save money, then he is not taking advantage of God’s gift. He must take advantage of this even in death to be a good Protestant.
The blog on the Parting website (pictured at the end of this section) features articles overwhelmingly about how one can save money planning for your own funeral. The celebration of one’s self on earth can be too extravagant and too frivolous. These characteristics are given to something that costs more money then necessary not on the actual activity of that funeral. The rituals at a funeral are not only traditional and culturally dependent, but dependent on capitalism and driven by this compulsion to be as frugal as possible. Looking at this phenomenon through the lens of Weber can help explain the inclination to “save, save, save” even when you are no longer on this earth.
A New York Times article, which talks about Parting, also describes the process of frugal funeral planning from the business perspective. The co-founder of Grace, a start-up similar to Parting gives his advice to the bereaved: “Here are the 17 things you need to do this week and you can check them off as you do them. Here’s what you do the week before someone dies, when they die and then two weeks later.” The industrialization and rationalization of mourning leaves little room for irrationality that has become so characteristic of visceral mourning. The unpredictable nature of humans dealing with death has been capitalized.
The Protestant Ethic is fundamentally based on the idea of asceticism, The direct rejection of luxury and excess is pervasive in every realm even in our most human moment of mourning or even physically dying. Through the article, the funeral service is a practice based on the virtue of frugality and not the optimal way to celebrate and remember one’s life. One has a moral duty to save as much as possible. The company, Parting, saw how expensive funerals were and decided to play into the spirit of capitalism. As mentioned before, according to this spirit of capitalism, one has a moral obligation to take advantage of any and all money-saving opportunities to be a good steward to God. Funerals are not just a simple venue to mourn, as they seem on the surface, this article brought to light the explicit financial and capitalist tendency of the funeral. Even in death, a man must avoid, “ostentation and unnecessary expenditure, as well as conscious enjoyment of his power, and is embarrassed by the outward signs of the social recognition which he receives” (33). To plan for yourself an extravagant funeral would be seen as ethically un-Protestant and not living for the glory of God. However, the person in question is no longer alive. The spirit of capitalism pervades even past our own mortality.
As we have seen, capitalism structures many of our interactions with the deceased and with our ideas of our own mortality. The social theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber provide valuable insights into how and why this occurs. Though different from each other, the implications of Marx’s and Weber’s theories on this particular topic are not contradictory, but rather complementary. Through a Marxian lens, we can understand death-based start-ups such as Parting, and other actors that participate in the economic interactions surrounding dead bodies, as participating in a process of commodifying dead bodies. This process must happen in order for these companies to make money. And in seeking to do so, they often appeal to Weber’s spirit of capitalism in their potential consumers, as the example of Parting’s blog section shows. After all, if all consumers sought to make money solely in order to spend it on things during their lives, then there would be no point in saving money once they are dead and incapable of spending money. This logic only makes sense when the act of saving money takes on a moral dimension in and of itself. The logical systems that treat dead bodies as vehicles through which to make money and treat saving money as a priority in dealing with death come as a stark contrast to cultural traditions that deal with death, which, though they vary widely, tend to stress the importance of treating the dead with respect, and honoring the self which had existed in the person and is now either gone or transported somewhere else. These traditions are not exactly gone. In fact, they are in some ways necessary for much of what we have discussed – we have to want to hold funerals in order for anyone to make money off of them. But in the world of 21st-century capitalism, these traditions interact with capitalism and with the spirit of capitalism to create new forms and practices of dealing with death. Ultimately, we can see that capitalism is not only a force that greatly affects our lives, but also one that greatly affects our deaths.