Are you dead wrong to trust the funeral industry in having your best interests at heart when it’s time to shuffle off your mortal coil?
Welcome to Skeptical Sunday, a special edition of The Jordan Harbinger Show where Jordan and fact-checker, comedian, and podcast host David C. Smalley break down a topic that you may have never thought about, open things up, and debunk common misconceptions.
On This Week’s Skeptical Sunday, We Discuss:
- The average cost of a funeral is over $11,000.
- Lack of regulation and high prices lead to some families not being able to afford funerals. As a result, about 88,000 bodies go unclaimed each year.
- Grieving people may not have the emotional energy or knowledge to compare prices, leading to exploitation by funeral companies — like Service Corporation International (SCI), whose prices are 47 percent to 72 percent higher than competitors.
- 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are used in the US each year, which potentially get into the drinking water. 1.4 million cremations recorded in 2017 created CO2 emissions equalling 52,000 cars on the road.
- Funerals.org provides information on funeral arrangements and what is necessary versus what is being sold by funeral homes.
- Connect with Jordan on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. If you have something you’d like us to tackle here on Skeptical Sunday, drop Jordan a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know!
- Connect with David at his website, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, and make sure to check out The David C. Smalley Podcast here or wherever you enjoy listening to fine podcasts! If you like to get out of your house and catch live comedy, keep an eye on David’s tour dates here and text David directly at (424) 306-0798 for tickets when he comes to your town!
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Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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This Episode Is Sponsored By:
- Peloton: Learn more at onepeloton.com/row
Miss our interview with broadcast journalist, political commentator, and 18-time Emmy Award winner Anderson Cooper? Catch up with episode 584: Anderson Cooper | The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty here!
Resources from This Episode:
- The Death Industry Is Getting Away with Murder | Washington Monthly
- Your Funeral Rights | Funeral Consumers Alliance
- How ‘Big Funeral’ Made the Afterlife So Expensive | Wired
- Global Recorded-Music Revenues Topped $20 Billion in 2019, but Streaming Growth Is Slowing | Variety
- Funeral Cost Breakdown 2023: How To Save (No-BS Guide) | GetSure
- Reiki Healing | Skeptical Sunday | Jordan Harbinger
- I’ve Been an Embalmer for 14 Years and See My Share of Bodies. Any Questions? | The Guardian
- This is What Happens to Unclaimed Bodies in America | Talk Death
- Thousands of Bodies Go Unclaimed in the United States Every Year | The Washington Post
- Service Corporation International (SCI) Stock Price, News, Quote & History | Yahoo Finance
- A Buried Problem at Country’s Top Funeral Home Chain? | CBS News
- Nation’s Largest Funeral Home Company Charges High Prices and Refuses to Disclose These Prices On Their Websites | Consumer Federation of America
- Home Depot and Lowe’s Have 30% Share of a Home Improvement Market That’s Heading Toward $1 Trillion | MarketWatch
- Those Who Invested in Service Corporation International (NYSE:SCI) Five Years Ago Are Up 151% | Simply Wall St. News
- Why Is Cremation Becoming More Popular in the US? | National Cremation
- Consumer Advice: The FTC Funeral Rule | Federal Trade Commission
- When You Die, You’ll Probably Be Embalmed. Thank Abraham Lincoln For That | Science| Smithsonian Magazine
- The Twisted Business of Death | Iilluminaughtii
- Are Dead or Decomposing Bodies Dangerous? | The Order of the Good Death
- How America Does Death, and What We Can Learn from Other Cultures | WBEZ Chicago
- Caitlin Doughty | Website
- Regulations, Market Dynamics Changing Funeral Business | Bladen Journal
- Child Care Licensing & Regulations | Childcare.gov
- Can the American Casket Monopoly Be Disrupted? | The Hustle
- Are Burial Vaults Required? Why Place a Casket in a Vault? | Trigard
- How to Choose the Right Outer Burial Container: Burial Vaults and Grave Liners | Everplans
- Green Burial: How Natural Burials Help the Planet | NowThis Earth
- Cremation Laws and How They Affect Arranging a Cremation | US Funerals Online
- Bay Harbor Butcher Case | Dexter Wiki
- Neil deGrasse Tyson | Astrophysics for People in a Hurry | Jordan Harbinger
- Neil deGrasse Tyson | Cosmic Queries for the Acutely Curious | Jordan Harbinger
- Neil deGrasse Tyson | Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization | Jordan Harbinger
- Neil deGrasse Tyson Answers a Religious Troll | Tantan Taligatos
- The Mummy (1999) | Prime Video
793: Death | Skeptical Sunday
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Special thanks to Peloton for sponsoring this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:07] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger, and this is Skeptical Sunday, a special edition of The Jordan Harbinger Show where fact-checker and comedian David C. Smalley, and yours truly break down a topic that you all may have never thought about. Open things up, debunk some common misconceptions — topics such as why the Olympics are kind of a sham, why expiration dates on food are pretty much nonsense, why tipping may be racist, recycling, banned foods, toothpaste, chemtrails, a whole lot more.
[00:00:33] Normally, on The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people, and then turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. So these are long-form interviews and conversations with a variety of amazing people, from spies to CEOs, athletes, authors, thinkers, and performers.
[00:00:52] If you're new to the show or you're looking for a handy way to tell your friends about the show — and of course, I love it when you do that — I suggest our episode starter packs as a place to begin. These are collections of some of our favorite episodes organized by topic. That always helps new listeners get a taste of everything we do here on the show — topics like persuasion and influence, technology, futurism, crime and cults, and more. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start, or take a look in your Spotify app to get started.
[00:01:17] Now, everyone knows that dying isn't fun, but now it's even worse because if you're like most Americans, you probably can't afford it. Today's skeptic comedian David C. Smalley is here to tell us why dying is even harder and more expensive than we previously thought.
[00:01:33] David C. Smalley: That's right, Jordan. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:34] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:01:35] David C. Smalley: Look, if you want to die, you better start saving some money first.
[00:01:38] Jordan Harbinger: Right. I mean, you thought healthcare was expensive. Try not caring for your health at all. In addition to inflation and all the other things that we have to pay for these days, now, we got to figure death into our budgets.
[00:01:49] David C. Smalley: And apparently, this has been an issue for a couple of hundred years.
[00:01:52] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:01:52] David C. Smalley: Like I was thinking this was kind of a recent thing. No, there's actually a New York Times article from 1856. I had to triple-fact-check this to make sure that New York Times existed then. They did, I believe it was founded in 1851. There's an article from 1856 where they wrote, "Nobody that is not comfortably off in this world's goods can afford to die."
[00:02:17] Jordan Harbinger: Hmm.
[00:02:18] David C. Smalley: And then in 1951, a Collider article noted that while the cost of living has risen 347 percent in the last 122 years, the cost of dying has rocketed to as much as 10,000 percent. And this was 1951 that they were writing this.
[00:02:36] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. That is telling because we've continued that proud tradition of ripping people off when they die. So yeah, people are too broke to die for quite a long time now. And you know what? It's a miracle. Anybody even bothers to do it anymore, David?
[00:02:47] David C. Smalley: It's okay. The Internet makes it easier.
[00:02:49] Jordan Harbinger: To die?
[00:02:50] David C. Smalley: Well, that too, but it also makes it easier to afford a funeral.
[00:02:54] Jordan Harbinger: Ah.
[00:02:54] David C. Smalley: You can look things up, which I guess is kind of the same thing. The website, funerals.org lays out your rights, and I'm just right off the top. I want people to know where they can go for some of their public information. It lays out your rights. It's how to arrange these things and what you actually need versus what some of these funeral homes are going to tell you that you need.
[00:03:15] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:03:15] David C. Smalley: For example, in 41 states, families are allowed to take on this entire process themselves, including filling out and filing the death certificates, burial permits, and all of that in addition to the care and transportation of the body itself.
[00:03:31] Jordan Harbinger: Mmm.
[00:03:31] David C. Smalley: Now, I'm not saying you could just toss grandma in the back seat and head to the cemetery, so look up the laws in your state, but you don't need to pay a thousand dollars for a gold-plated hearse. So just know your options.
[00:03:42] Jordan Harbinger: I'm just imagining someone showing up to the cemetery with like those hockey duffles. Or is that a Michigan? Like a big hockey bag and be like, "Hey, somebody give me a hand with this."
[00:03:53] David C. Smalley: I mean, there's probably legal in some states. Who knows?
[00:03:56] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:03:57] David C. Smalley: Here's looking at you, Texas.
[00:03:58] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:03:58] David C. Smalley: Oh, of course. So Wired has a 2021 article titled, How 'Big Funeral' Made the Afterlife So Expensive, where they wrote that today death is a 20-billion industry.
[00:04:12] Jordan Harbinger: Wow. Okay. That's a lot. Can you compare that to something else so we get an idea of scale? Because I think when it just sounds like a big number, but what other industries are around that size?
[00:04:20] David C. Smalley: So that would be equivalent to say the entire global music industry for 2019.
[00:04:28] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow. That's enormous.
[00:04:29] David C. Smalley: Massive and in its most corporate and cynical forms. It's marked by largely unchecked pricing, including markups as high as 500 percent on caskets.
[00:04:41] Jordan Harbinger: Oof.
[00:04:42] David C. Smalley: According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average funeral cost in 2022 is now over $11,000. Jordan, I sent you a list of the funeral costs breakdown, showing line by line how much things are.
[00:04:58] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. I'm looking at it now. 350 bucks for the hearse.
[00:05:01] David C. Smalley: Yeah. How long is that ride? Like when I die, just put me in an Uber. Like, it's nine bucks. Get me down the road. Think about it, it's not very far, typically.
[00:05:09] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. No, but Uber hearse? Like, "Ah, my driver canceled again. Ah, the driver is using way too many hearse fresheners. Like, dude, you need one tree. That's it. Just one."
[00:05:19] David C. Smalley: Hearse fresheners. That's so disgusting.
[00:05:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Maybe for a hearse, you actually need more than one tree. I'll give them that.
[00:05:25] David C. Smalley: Probably a couple of trees, maybe some under the seat, some of that vanilla can thing. Whatever that is.
[00:05:29] Jordan Harbinger: The cans are the worst. I feel like those things are toxic. Actually, that's probably another Skeptical Sunday. Like what is in this car freshener and why is my throat hurt so bad?
[00:05:36] David C. Smalley: Ooh, let's write that one down for sure.
[00:05:38] Jordan Harbinger: So 350 bucks is pretty expensive, but it's still, it's probably half the cost of an ambulance, or at least, you know, a small percentage of the cost of an ambulance.
[00:05:47] David C. Smalley: Damn, that's deep.
[00:05:49] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:05:50] David C. Smalley: So, you know, things are bad when it's cheaper to die than get medical attention and we still can't afford either.
[00:05:55] Jordan Harbinger: All right. The next thing here is other preparation of the body. What is that?
[00:06:01] David C. Smalley: Are they giving it a pep talk?
[00:06:02] Jordan Harbinger: I think it's like Reiki massage, maybe.
[00:06:06] David C. Smalley: Okay. Look, I think the people who work at funeral homes are about to lose their minds in our ignorance right now.
[00:06:11] Jordan Harbinger: For sure, yeah.
[00:06:13] David C. Smalley: They're just like, "You guys are just throwing handfuls of poop at this. You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
[00:06:16] Jordan Harbinger: One-star review incoming.
[00:06:17] David C. Smalley: Right. Yeah, for sure. So let me actually answer without comedy for a moment. I'll be serious. Yes, they do actually massage the body.
[00:06:24] Jordan Harbinger: Huh?
[00:06:25] David C. Smalley: But unlike Reiki, it's functional.
[00:06:27] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:06:27] David C. Smalley: An article in The Guardian shows an interview with a mortician who says that the body is vigorously massaged with a soapy sponge to help facilitate drainage and distribution of embalming fluid.
[00:06:42] Jordan Harbinger: There's a gross joke in there. I'm just not going—
[00:06:43] David C. Smalley: Yeah.
[00:06:43] Jordan Harbinger: —to make it because—
[00:06:44] David C. Smalley: Oh God.
[00:06:44] Jordan Harbinger: —it's super inappropriate. Yeah, it's something about vigorously massaging with a soapy sponge to facilitate drainage.
[00:06:51] David C. Smalley: I mean, why can't I get that kind of attention while I was alive?
[00:06:53] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:06:53] David C. Smalley: You know what I'm saying?
[00:06:54] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, you can, you just need, it's like 40 bucks an hour, but you can. Actually, it's much, much more affordable than a funeral.
[00:07:02] David C. Smalley: It's cheaper now. It's cheaper to get that massage. So, let this be a lesson, kids. Get your fluids drained now so that your family saves money.
[00:07:10] Jordan Harbinger: There's a couple of places in San Francisco that'll do it on the cheap.
[00:07:13] David C. Smalley: Okay. What I'm mostly concerned about here, honestly, is the lack of regulation and the ridiculous markups on the entire process. So the rising cost of funerals actually leads to about 88,000 bodies going unclaimed every year.
[00:07:28] Jordan Harbinger: Ooh.
[00:07:29] David C. Smalley: So that family members won't be on the hook for paying a bill.
[00:07:32] Jordan Harbinger: That is awful. That's both sad and kind of gross because the pain involved in all seriousness of not being able to handle a deceased family member. But also do you have to just pretend like you don't know, like, "I don't know how this guy and all of his personal belongings got into this upstairs bedroom. Sorry, folks." like, I don't know what you even do with that. It's tragic and also makes no sense somehow.
[00:07:54] David C. Smalley: And people can't really say proper goodbyes sometimes because—
[00:07:57] Jordan Harbinger: No.
[00:07:57] David C. Smalley: —they just can't afford it. So they have to have kind of a separate service or whatever. But yeah, when the authorities show up, you have to be like, "Well, I don't know. I don't know who that is," because you'll be on the hook for paying those bills.
[00:08:07] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, disturbing.
[00:08:07] David C. Smalley: It's disturbing.
[00:08:08] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:08:08] David C. Smalley: That Wired article shines a light on SCI. It's a company called Service Corporation International is the most generic-sounding name.
[00:08:18] Jordan Harbinger: That's so ambiguous. Yeah.
[00:08:19] David C. Smalley: It's like the bad guy corporation in every Batman movie. Like, "Oh, he works for Service Corporation International."
[00:08:25] Jordan Harbinger: It reminds me of MacGyver from the '80s and '90s. Did you ever watch MacGyver? Of course, you did, right?
[00:08:29] David C. Smalley: A little bit. Yeah.
[00:08:31] Jordan Harbinger: They said they worked for the Phoenix Corporation, but you never had any idea what the hell they did. And they were always like, "Weah, we solve problems." And it's like, "What are you talking about? You solve problems. That doesn't mean anything." That's what Service Corporation International sounds like. It's a corporation that does services internationally.
[00:08:45] David C. Smalley: Yeah, it's a lazy writer in the writer's room. But in this case, it's a real company. SCI is the largest funeral services provider in North America. They've got over 1,500 funeral homes and over 500 cemeteries in its portfolio accounting for about 16 percent of the overall market share. And instead of lowering their prices as it scaled, like something like a Walmart or a Big Box retailer would do. They could get the prices down. SCI has done the opposite. They average 47 to 72 percent higher prices than their competitors, according to a 2017 report co-authored by the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
[00:09:23] Jordan Harbinger: So they can get away with this because they're all over the place and grieving people are probably too stressed, too emotionally drained to shop around and compare and negotiate, especially if they don't know they're already getting ripped off.
[00:09:36] David C. Smalley: Exactly. So 16 percent is pretty powerful.
[00:09:39] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:09:39] David C. Smalley: It may not sound like a big number, but to put it into perspective, 16 percent is about the same as Home Depot's market share in the home improvement industry.
[00:09:46] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, wow. Because that's kind of name another hardware store. It's kind of tricky.
[00:09:50] David C. Smalley: Right. You may go Lowe's Home Depot and then start thinking of Ace Hardware in smaller places that are local to you, but you can't really think of something bigger than Home Depot, maybe an equivalent would be Lowe's, but that's how massive these guys are in the funeral industry. And so yeah, you're right. They just keep jacking up the prices. There's nothing anybody can really do about it. And the only people who don't seem to mind is their investors whose stock rose 151 percent over five years.
[00:10:17] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:10:17] David C. Smalley: And they can just change their terms and they can add fees whenever they want. They're even stories of them adding fees for a person to use a plot that they already purchased based on a policy change or some other ambiguous excuse.
[00:10:30] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:10:30] David C. Smalley: Meaning like someone could come in and like buy a plot for say, what? A 1,500, 2,000, whatever the price is. So you've got the plot paid for and then you don't die for 17 years or whatever. And then in the meantime, they've added certain fees and other things too, you know, an additional landscaping maintenance or whatever fees to every plot. And then you show up to use your spot and they go, "Oh, well now there's additional fees because of our policy change." We've already bought the plot. What are you going to do about it?
[00:10:58] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:10:59] David C. Smalley: And it may cost you several hundred dollars to use a plot you've already purchased.
[00:11:03] Jordan Harbinger: That's so upsetting to hear this happens. Especially because, of course, a lot of the people involved in this are old, like grieving widows. I'm just imagining my wife age 80 or 90 or older, hopefully, right? And I've croaked. She's like, "I have to come up with this money," and/or like, hey, calling my kids to get money together. It's just kind of despicable. So the solution to that kind of thing is if you haven't already bought your plot, just move to a different funeral home or cemetery. Right?
[00:11:29] David C. Smalley: I mean, even if you have bought the plot, you can move.
[00:11:32] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. Well, yeah, of course.
[00:11:33] David C. Smalley: You can get a refund. You can change. Yeah, that's the best. It's also costly to do that, but still, most funeral rights advocates, and there are such things, there are entire groups who do this. They say to do just that, that if a company's screwing you around, just move to another cemetery. And if you think you're avoiding SCI, big corporate, generic, giant because you're going to say a new place with a small family-sounding name. SCI is already onto you. They often buy these places up and then they keep the original name—
[00:12:04] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, yeah.
[00:12:04] David C. Smalley: So no one even knows it unless you like do a record search or something to find out who owns that actual business or property.
[00:12:10] Jordan Harbinger: You know what's more affordable than dying? Purchasing one of the fine products and services that support this show. We'll be right back.
[00:12:18] This episode is sponsored in part by Peloton. A lot of people ask me how I'm able to stick to my fitness routine, especially since I have such a bananas schedule. For me, it's really creating a routine that is sustainable and can be duplicated on an ongoing basis. Consistency is the key, right? And Peloton helps me have a sustainable fitness routine because there are thousands of classes to choose from. It's also 24/7. I've always got time for it. I might only have 15 minutes in between calls, but I can still fit in a Peloton class. Pelotons really famous for their bikes, but they also make a top-notch rowing machine that stores upright, which you think no big deal. But when you try to have a rower on the floor, you'll be so glad this thing goes upright. If you're a newbie to rowing, the Peloton Row has sensors that can track your movements, that shows you how your form is doing, and it warns you if you're doing something wrong that could injure you or whatever. And right now is the perfect time to get rowing. With Peloton Row, we can promise you've never rowed like this before. Peloton Row offers a variety of classes for all levels and game-changing features that help you get rowing or advance what you can already do. Explore Peloton Row and financing options at onepeloton.com/row.
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[00:13:40] All right, now back to Skeptical Sunday.
[00:13:42] You know, I wondered about that because I grew up in Michigan. There's a funeral home and that place has had the same name for a while and I remember thinking, "Wow, it must have been that person's grandfather who's running it right now." And my mom is like, "Yeah, I remember going to funerals there when I was young." And I'm thinking, "Okay, that's quite a family business." But now I realize it could have gotten bought in 1982 by SCI and they're just like, "Nah, we're still going to call it AJ Desmond and Sons because it sounds like a homey, folksy place where you'd want to have your relative taken care of."
[00:14:14] David C. Smalley: Yep, exactly. Yep.
[00:14:15] Jordan Harbinger: Yes.
[00:14:16] David C. Smalley: So you think you're going to one of those places and it turns out to be some giant corporations.
[00:14:20] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Okay. So at what point does profit become actual price gouging? because 500 percent markup on caskets et cetera. You'd think there'd be laws preventing things like this, especially on a sensitive topic like death. Like if you want to charge too much for PlayStations, okay, I get it, hashtag capitalism, but with death and hand sanitizer in a pandemic, you know, people get pissed off about this kind of stuff.
[00:14:44] David C. Smalley: Yeah. And they're obviously vulnerable like you were saying.
[00:14:46] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:14:46] David C. Smalley: And it's like preying upon people who are vulnerable, and that's kind of why price gouging laws exist, right? So if there's some sort of war or there's some sort of problem and everybody needs cotton. You know, if Ross suddenly starts selling t-shirts for $3,000 a piece, that's obviously price gouging because people are vulnerable. So you would think that there would be like a blanket constant state of emergency over the death industry, and it's just not.
[00:15:11] And this is a recurring theme across these Skeptical Sunday episodes because we always get to the root of the problem. It's almost always corporate greed, right? And then, we want to say, aren't there laws regulating it? There should be some laws capping this, and I agree, but in fact, just about the opposite is true. So in most cases, if you are an investor, you invest into a business and then, that business makes you a hundred million this year, you have every right in the world to audit that business and say, "Did you do everything to maximize profits? Could my 100 million have been 200 million?" And if your auditor can then prove that they didn't do everything to maximize profit, you can sue them for the difference of what you think they could have made you.
[00:15:53] And so there's this fine line and they have to walk this line between profiteering or making a regular profit and then straight-up price gouging because they may get sued by their shareholder if they don't squeeze every single drop out of everything. So yeah, they're definitely encouraged to walk that line. And in fact, part of it, another state law issue with this is two-thirds of our states have ready-to-embalm laws that force funeral homes to have an embalming room, even when they don't offer that service or when families don't make that request. Even though right now half of Americans choose to cremate and embalming is not necessary for a cremation.
[00:16:35] Jordan Harbinger: That I don't fully understand. Okay, let me back up. I get that they need to make money for shareholders. I used to work in finance. I'm very familiar with that. Those shareholder suits, they're tricky, but people want to make money for their shareholders and for their company. I get that, but is embalming necessary at all? I know that it slows decomposition, but isn't the idea here that I am inevitably going to decompose? Why drag that out? I'm already dead anyway.
[00:16:58] David C. Smalley: I think that has a lot to do with people just not being able to wrap their heads around decomposing.
[00:17:02] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:17:02] David C. Smalley: Like, I want to be gone as soon as possible.
[00:17:04] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:17:04] David C. Smalley: I don't want to create more of a footprint than I already have, but to answer your question, no, embalming is not usually necessary. Even though these states have ready-to-embalm laws. There's no federal law mandating embalming in any situation. And the concept of embalming actually is based on old ideas that we haven't even updated. Just like a lot of these topics go there. You know, it's like, yeah, it was from 1890 or something, and we haven't corrected the rules on it. So embalming became popular in the United States during the Civil War when we weren't all that united—
[00:17:36] Jordan Harbinger: Ah.
[00:17:36] David C. Smalley: —as opposed to now where we're totally on the same page, right?
[00:17:38] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Yeah.
[00:17:39] David C. Smalley: Anyway, it was primarily used because like soldiers were dying so far from home and so it made sense, right? Bodies were decomposing before they had a proper burial with family in attendance. So embalming made sense. Then, I came across this wonderful video called The Twisted Business of Death, explaining these things in detail from a YouTuber named Iilluminaughtii.
[00:18:03] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that sounds like a strip club—
[00:18:04] David C. Smalley: Yeah.
[00:18:05] Jordan Harbinger: —kind of thing.
[00:18:05] David C. Smalley: Like [naughtii], not naughty, but like not—
[00:18:07] Jordan Harbinger: Naughty.
[00:18:09] David C. Smalley: Welcome Iilluminaughtii to the stage.
[00:18:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yes.
[00:18:11] David C. Smalley: That kind of naughty.
[00:18:12] Jordan Harbinger: Exactly.
[00:18:13] David C. Smalley: So she's fantastic. And she talks about in this video how like nowadays as callous as it sounds, refrigerators are perfectly sufficient for the small amount of time it takes between death and burial in the vast majority of situations. And most funeral homes have a policy though that they will not allow a viewing unless you embalm and they say that it's for the safety of everyone in the room. So now, again, they're using this like this scare tactic, right?
[00:18:41] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:18:41] David C. Smalley: Well, there's a decomposing body. Even if you have the viewing three or four days after the person's death, there's probably not going to be a whole lot of noticeable differences, but this idea that it's now a dead body that could be a safety hazard, right? So you're kind of scared into it and it just makes sense. Dead people get embalmed. We've kind of been trained to know that, but there's a woman named Caitlin Doughty. She's a mortician, she's an author. She's got really great content out there. She's also got her own YouTube channel, and she says on her channel, that living bodies are far more dangerous than dead ones.
[00:19:14] Jordan Harbinger: That makes sense.
[00:19:15] David C. Smalley: And that viruses can only live in a corpse for a few hours at most, and dead bodies can't cough or sneeze to spread viruses anyway. And Iilluminaughtii explains that when we think of a mortician embalming a body, we imagine masks and suits and gloves, but that's not to keep them safe from that dead. It's to keep them safe from the embalming fluids. They are highly toxic and it drastically increases their risk of rare cancers.
[00:19:42] Jordan Harbinger: And of course, the funeral homes then pass that expense onto the consumer, even though it's completely unnecessary for most people.
[00:19:49] David C. Smalley: Jordan, to the tune of 26 million per year just in that piece.
[00:19:54] Jordan Harbinger: Just in fluids. So in addition to price gouging when they have the opportunity, these companies are also essentially victims of bad legislation. So that costs them money and then, they pass that loss onto us, which is understandable.
[00:20:06] David C. Smalley: Yeah. Right, exactly. It reminds me of like the daycare industry, which we totally need to ruin on a future Skeptical Sunday episode.
[00:20:13] Jordan Harbinger: Hmm. I'm familiar with that. Yeah.
[00:20:14] David C. Smalley: Oh yeah. I mean, my daughter is 18 now and I remember paying nearly a thousand dollars a month for her as an infant. I mean, it's just insane how much it costs. And because the government mandates a certain number of daycare employees for the number of kids enrolled, not attending.
[00:20:32] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:20:33] David C. Smalley: And that's why the daycares charge you even when your kid doesn't show up.
[00:20:36] Jordan Harbinger: I didn't realize that's why they did that. That's interesting.
[00:20:38] David C. Smalley: Yeah.
[00:20:38] Jordan Harbinger: I figured it was, I thought that was a pandemic thing because they're like, oh, people will keep their kids home. We're not going to get paid, we're going to go out of business. I didn't realize it was because of legislation.
[00:20:47] David C. Smalley: Yeah, so they have to hire the people. If they have 80 kids enrolled, there's some caregiver-to-child ratio.
[00:20:53] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:20:53] David C. Smalley: And if five or six kids don't show up that day, they still have to employ that person in case the kid shows up. So they pass that cost on to you.
[00:21:02] Jordan Harbinger: It's like being on a monthly membership program with a fast food place, and the owner's like, "Well, someone's got to be there in case you get hungry and we're not going to pay their salary."
[00:21:11] David C. Smalley: Exactly.
[00:21:11] Jordan Harbinger: You're going to have to do that anyway.
[00:21:13] David C. Smalley: Right. Yeah. We have to pay it. So you have to pay it. And everything just rolls downhill to the consumer.
[00:21:17] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Okay.
[00:21:18] David C. Smalley: And by the way, this is not just the services here. The casket makers are probably the worst, if not among the worst offenders in this entire situation. Two Companies, Batesville and Matthews dominate the casket market. They make up more than eight out of every 10 caskets sold in the United States, they technically control 82 percent of the casket market.
[00:21:42] Jordan Harbinger: Oh wow. That's a near monopoly. So they can just mark up whatever they want at this point, almost doesn't matter.
[00:21:46] David C. Smalley: And that's why you're seeing 300 percent, 500 percent markups on caskets.
[00:21:51] Jordan Harbinger: Oh man. That's unbelievable.
[00:21:53] David C. Smalley: And since most cemeteries are privately owned, even if you see them as public, they can set their own policy. Like they can require concrete vaults around the casket because it makes for easier lawn maintenance. But then they charge you for the concrete and sometimes they even lie and tell you it's required by law. It's not. There is no federal or state mandate on vaults, but almost every cemetery has it as their policy. And since you have to do it, the prices can be ridiculous. And they also vary widely. They range from anywhere from $700 up to $13,000 for essentially the same type of concrete vault that they tell you you have to have.
[00:22:29] Jordan Harbinger: Geez, concrete vault. I don't really understand. So is this over the top of the plot so the lawn doesn't sink down as you decompose? Is that what that is?
[00:22:37] David C. Smalley: So the vault is fully enclosed. It's like a concrete box, right? So it goes into the ground before. Have you ever been to a funeral? And you see them sort of lowering the casket down.
[00:22:46] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:22:46] David C. Smalley: They're lowering it into a concrete vault in most cases. So it's like a box with a removable lid. They keep the lid off to the side, they lower the concrete vault into the ground, then they put the casket inside the vault, and then they put the concrete lid on top of the vault.
[00:23:03] Jordan Harbinger: You are listening to Skeptical Sunday on The Jordan Harbinger Show. We'll be right back.
[00:23:08] This episode is sponsored in part by Peloton. In the past couple of years, I've been paying a lot closer attention to my health, and one way is just by being more active. I always try to get 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day. I know that numbers are arbitrary, whatever. I was getting a lot of sun doing that though, and I needed a better way to build muscle and improve my cardiovascular. But it's tricky for my schedule. I'm often on back-to-back calls. I'm reading audiobooks or reading actual books. I'm researching, I'm prepping an interview. I don't want to spend time getting in a car looking for parking, going around to a gym that's full of sweaty, gross people. Plus I got kids and aging parents at home. I can't just wake up and get out of the house with nobody noticing, yes, even getting up early. Working out at home before they're awake or during their naps has actually been the key for me to stay active and healthy. Many people fall off the wagon when they have these responsibilities, and I 100 percent understand how that happens. But now you don't have to with Peloton. And that's one of several reasons why I really like Peloton. First of all, one membership is good for the entire family. They're not going to pull that hole, like everybody needs their own login for $10 a month. They don't do that. You can have a friendly competition with each other. The convenience factor can't really be beat. Peloton makes top-notch machines. The classes are taught by world-class instructors who are pretty funny and engaging. Peloton is known for their amazing bikes, which we have, but they also make a rowing machine, which personally I kind of think is a little bit more my style/fun. Rowing is great for a full-body workout. It's really good for improving your cardiovascular endurance. and I can get my heart pumping in the morning before the kids wake up or get in a quick class if somebody cancels a call. Also, with Peloton, you can lean on the power of community. A lot of people say, "Okay, I like going to work out at clubs." I know you don't like them. You say they're gross. There's a lot of other people there that keep them motivated. All right, my dad's there right now. He's probably been there for three hours. He's one of those guys who socializes there. With Peloton, you can see who's in class with you. You can do virtual high fives with each other. The instructors, as I said, are really engaging, might be really funny, might even call you out during a live class. You can also add friends on there, have the friendly or not-so-friendly competition. There are leaderboards. I think the gamification element is not only addicting, but motivating in a way that's not sort of toxic or negative. Also, it's a very supportive place on that note, so it does keep you motivated, especially when you feel like maybe you're burning out, your workouts are in vain. You're trying to get over the hump of the first few days or weeks or whatever of any new habit. I think the community element is a great motivational tool to keep people like you and I, staying healthy, staying active without, you know, having somebody sweat all over me and/or my machine. So right now's a good time to get rowing with Peloton Row. Really, it's a fun experience. There's a form thing in there that teaches you how to do it better and grades you. And Peloton offers a variety of classes for all levels and game-changing features that help you get rowing or advance what you can already do. So go explore Peloton Row and their financing options at onepeloton.com/row.
[00:26:02] I invite you to do what other smart and considerate listeners do, take a moment and support our amazing sponsors. All of the deals, all the discount codes are all at jordanharbinger.com/deals. You can also search for any sponsor using the AI chatbot on the website as well. Thanks so much for supporting those who support us. It does keep us going. It makes it possible for us to continue creating these episodes week after week.
[00:26:24] Now for the rest of skeptical Sunday.
[00:26:28] I can see why that would be easier than to cut the lawn.
[00:26:30] David C. Smalley: Yeah.
[00:26:30] Jordan Harbinger: But it's also even more unnecessary than putting my fully dressed, fully embalmed body into a nice weatherproof wooden box and then they're putting me in cement. It's like I wasn't that durable when I was alive.
[00:26:43] David C. Smalley: That's a good point.
[00:26:44] Jordan Harbinger: Not even close.
[00:26:45] David C. Smalley: Yeah, fully dressed, makeup, embalmed. And by the way, they make sure the inside of the casket is lined with like some kind of velvet—
[00:26:51] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:26:51] David C. Smalley: Like so you can be comfortable.
[00:26:53] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That's a lot, way longer than my actual life.
[00:26:57] David C. Smalley: Yeah, it makes no sense. By the way, I didn't bring up these individual stories because I don't want authority anyone under the bus or create lawsuits for you. But there have been instances of funeral homes digging these things up, taking these expensive caskets out of the ground and reselling them.
[00:27:12] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, that's horrifying.
[00:27:16] David C. Smalley: When the dirt's still fresh, they can get away with it. A lot of this doesn't even make sense to even give it a shot, you know?
[00:27:22] Jordan Harbinger: Yikes.
[00:27:23] David C. Smalley: So, to answer your question, yes, it does help with the landscaping.
[00:27:27] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, that's crime and we're going to get emails from people who run funeral homes who are like, "We don't do this. It's not all funeral homes," and we know that, right?
[00:27:34] David C. Smalley: Right.
[00:27:34] Jordan Harbinger: We're sort of acknowledging that. It's just some of these giant corporate entities are doing this. And also, of course, the criminals that are digging up freshly buried people, dumping the body out and reusing the casket. That's some real though, despicable ish.
[00:27:50] David C. Smalley: It's just yet another reason to avoid pouring money into something that's just for your own peace of mind.
[00:27:57] Jordan Harbinger: Right, your ego.
[00:27:58] David C. Smalley: It doesn't mean anything. There's no reason to do that.
[00:28:00] Jordan Harbinger: Geez. Yeah. So there's got to be some laws regarding all these kinds of things.
[00:28:04] David C. Smalley: So, as far as laws, there are none mandating the vaults.
[00:28:08] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Okay.
[00:28:08] David C. Smalley: But there are laws mandating pricing transparency.
[00:28:11] Jordan Harbinger: Thankfully.
[00:28:12] David C. Smalley: And yes, they are constantly being violated.
[00:28:15] Jordan Harbinger: Surprise, surprise. All right.
[00:28:16] David C. Smalley: So funeral homes and cemeteries are consistently found to not have the proper documentation. They don't put out their public pricing list like they're mandated and all sorts of things required by law, but what are you going to do about it? Tell people not to die. So yeah, you can negotiate, you can question the pricing. You can demand a full-price list. They have to give it to you. And you could go to, as far as price shopping and all of this, but you're grieving, you're under this whole situation and you could always go with cremation.
[00:28:44] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I've heard that's on fire right now.
[00:28:48] David C. Smalley: Okay. All right. Okay. Anyone?
[00:28:52] Jordan Harbinger: I start laughing at my own jokes.
[00:28:53] David C. Smalley: Hang on.
[00:28:54] Jordan Harbinger: But not right now. I'll start tomorrow.
[00:28:55] David C. Smalley: I mean, there's a group of people that are dying when they hear that.
[00:28:59] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my God.
[00:28:59] David C. Smalley: Okay.
[00:29:01] Jordan Harbinger: Continue.
[00:29:02] David C. Smalley: Okay, so there's even a problem with the cremation thing. So according to NowThis Earth, and I'm going to quote here, "4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid are used in the United States each year. When someone is buried after being embalmed, some of these harsh chemicals can get into the ground and potentially get into your drinking water." Can we just talk about how disgusting it is for a moment? That you could be drinking water—
[00:29:27] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, that's super gross, man.
[00:29:30] David C. Smalley: —with embalming fluid that came from a dead body.
[00:29:33] Jordan Harbinger: Ugh.
[00:29:34] David C. Smalley: So maybe that concrete vault is a good idea.
[00:29:36] Jordan Harbinger: Maybe we need to line it with plastic and rubber. Now that I think about it. Oh, it's so vile.
[00:29:40] David C. Smalley: Something waterproof. And the 1.4 million cremations recorded in 2017 created CO2 emissions equaling 52,000 cars on the road.
[00:29:51] Jordan Harbinger: Oh my gosh. Look, it's hard to do things at scale because it sounds like a ton, but then you're like, "Oh, but it's all of America." But then again, it's still so many cars on the road every day.
[00:30:01] David C. Smalley: Right.
[00:30:01] Jordan Harbinger: All right, so I've heard of green burials. Actually, I don't know anything about them, but is that where we're headed with this?
[00:30:06] David C. Smalley: Yeah, that's exactly where I'm going. I always try to take this to something positive, right?
[00:30:11] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:30:11] David C. Smalley: As we wrap up, I want to offer some solutions. I want to say, what should we be doing? I don't want to just come on here and complain. I want to offer some sort of solution and we're at a tipping point right now and I'm not just using scare tactics here, we are at a moment where our society just really needs to decide who we want to be. So in 2019, experts were expecting cremation to be at 70 percent by 2025. So we're very close, but while also noting that 54 percent of people are currently considering a green burial.
[00:30:44] Jordan Harbinger: Okay, so it sounds like we kind of go either way at this point with that sentiment. It just comes down to public knowledge, knowing what a green burial is or that it exists, willingness to face this head-on.
[00:30:54] David C. Smalley: Exactly. Yeah. And it's an uncomfortable topic to deal with, but it is so important.
[00:30:59] Jordan Harbinger: Okay, so what is a green burial then exactly?
[00:31:02] David C. Smalley: Okay, so NowThis Earth interviewed a green cemetery owner. His name is Ed Bigsby, and he said that green burial is no embalming fluids—
[00:31:11] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:31:12] David C. Smalley: —no concrete vaults, only biodegradable burial containers, hand-dug graves—
[00:31:18] Jordan Harbinger: Oh.
[00:31:18] David C. Smalley: —and no polished monuments. Basically, like a serial killer would be.
[00:31:22] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, right.
[00:31:23] David C. Smalley: Just get rid of all the evidence quickly.
[00:31:25] Jordan Harbinger: The old Dexter dumped me off in the ocean, except no plastic bags and no duct tape.
[00:31:30] David C. Smalley: There you go.
[00:31:30] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:31:30] David C. Smalley: That's it.
[00:31:30] Jordan Harbinger: No, fair enough. Who's doing the hand-digging? That seems like a really, that's a lot of work.
[00:31:36] David C. Smalley: So that's part of the joy that, Jordan. If you want—
[00:31:39] Jordan Harbinger: Hmm.
[00:31:39] David C. Smalley: —your family can take art in the process—
[00:31:42] Jordan Harbinger: Oh man.
[00:31:43] David C. Smalley: —of burying you. Now, I don't know that I'd want to take part. I guess it would depend on who it was, how close I was to them, and whether or not I was happy about their disappearance. But the options there, if people want to be connected to the earth and want to be a part of saying goodbye to their loved one in a loving way, not in a smart-ass terrible way, like I just worded it, you can actually take part in that, and if you don't want to, the cemetery will do the digging for you.
[00:32:06] Jordan Harbinger: So, okay, then the body just decomposes back into the earth kind of as was intended.
[00:32:12] David C. Smalley: Yeah.
[00:32:12] Jordan Harbinger: Before we came up with all this nonsense of concrete vaults and fluids and everything.
[00:32:16] David C. Smalley: Absolutely. So the biodegradable container is a very small box and it basically just disintegrates into the earth within about three to six months, something like that. And then so does your body, and usually within about 12 months, there's no evidence of any burial at all. Just like all the animals throughout all of history who have ever died in every forest ever.
[00:32:37] Jordan Harbinger: Mm-hmm.
[00:32:37] David C. Smalley: You're now just part of the earth. And that's exactly what nature intended.
[00:32:41] Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I'm honored to have had on my podcast twice, was questioned by a religious activist at an event way back in 2014. This guy gets up and he tells a story about a guy that's about to be executed. And he's like, "Upon execution, the religious believer has peace at death because his source is God. What will you have as a skeptic?" And he's like, "You have nothing. You have nothing to keep you at peace." And Neil's answer is one of the most beautiful things I've heard on death, and I have the audio here to play.
[00:33:11] Jordan Harbinger: All right.
[00:33:12] Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, I don't know if I fully understand the question. I do know that if he's about to be executed.
[00:33:19] Male audience: How about you are about to be executed?
[00:33:21] Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, I'm about to be.
[00:33:23] Male audience: You have nothing except your knowledge, your knowledge of science, your experience.
[00:33:29] Neil deGrasse Tyson: I would request that my body in death be buried, not cremated, so that the energy content contained within, it gets returned to the earth so that flora and fauna can dine upon it. Just as I have dined upon flora and fauna throughout my life.
[00:33:49] David C. Smalley: I think that is just absolutely beautiful. So even if you do hold a specific religious belief, it's hard to deny that being a wonderful way to go, that's certainly better for the environment than any chemical-related process humans have created.
[00:34:02] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I love that. So above all, know your rights, negotiate, shop around, have a green burial.
[00:34:08] David C. Smalley: Yeah. Or just donate your body to science and tell everyone to gather at the most fun house, have some drinks, and talk sh*t about you behind your back. Just like they did the whole time you were alive.
[00:34:17] Jordan Harbinger: Right, exactly. What about mummification?
[00:34:20] David C. Smalley: Uh, I've seen too many movies and that never ends well.
[00:34:23] Jordan Harbinger: Well, that's a good point. Yeah, you got me on that one. I didn't think anybody could make death and funerals any worse, but somehow, David, you have managed.
[00:34:31] David C. Smalley: Sweet. Thanks.
[00:34:34] Jordan Harbinger: All right.
[00:34:37] You are about to hear a preview of The Jordan Harbinger Show with one of the most recognizable names in journalism.
[00:34:42] Anderson Cooper: My great, great, great grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made two fortunes, one based on steamships, one on railroads. You know, he died with a hundred million dollars, which in 1877 meant that he controlled one out of every $20 in circulation. Nobody could believe it.
[00:35:00] My mom was Gloria Vanderbilt and she inherited a couple of million dollars in 1941. My mom drank and my brother ended up jumping off her balcony in front of my mom when he was 23 and I was 21. The next day my mom and I went to the funeral home to view his body and there were reporters waiting outside the funeral home to get a video of us going in, and I remember in that moment sort of hating the camera people who were doing that. I do know what it's like to be on the other end of the lens, and I don't want to make somebody else feel like that.
[00:35:29] I couldn't get a job at ABC or CBS. I thought my very nascent career in broadcasting was never going to get started. The director kindly made me a laminated press card, which was totally made up, and I borrowed one of their cameras, a small little camera, ended up just spending the next two or three years going to a war zone, some disasters.
[00:35:50] You never know exactly how people are going to react to something. You know, we all think, "Oh, well, you know, if I was there, this is what I would do." You can intellectually think you know who you are, but I'm telling you when the lights go out and there's no air condition and it's really freaking hot and you don't have food, and there's crazy stuff going on around you, you've become a different person very, very quickly. Sometimes you become the person that you never thought you'd be. You become a superhero and you risk your own life to help other people. Some of the people who thought they would be the heroes end up punching women in the face in order to scale a wall to get to safety. You don't know who you are until everything is at jeopardy.
[00:36:33] Jordan Harbinger: To hear more from Anderson Cooper about traveling through war zones and how we got his start in broadcast journalism without relying on family connections, check out episode 584 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:36:45] Thank you once again for listening. All suggestions for Skeptical Sunday are always welcome. Just email me email@example.com. Give me your thoughts there, your ideas. If we're way off on something, definitely let us know that too. A link to the show notes for the episode is at jordanharbinger.com. Transcripts are in the show. You can find David Smalley at @davidcsmalley on all social media platforms, at davidcsmalley.com, or better yet on his podcast, The David C. Smalley Show. Links to all that are in the show notes as well.
[00:37:12] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Ian Baird, Millie Ocampo, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Our advice and opinions are our own. And I'm a lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. Remember, we rise by lifting others. Share the show with those you love. And if you found the episode useful, hey please share it with somebody else who needs to hear it. Maybe, somebody who died recently, they could use this information. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen — well, or not live what you listen — and we'll see you next time.
[00:37:46] Special thanks to Peloton for sponsoring this episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
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