Wired to Death
Photo by James BunoanWilliam R. Bowers, the manager at Dilday Brothers funeral directors in Huntington Beach, smiles as he sticks out his hand and introduces himself as "Bill." He's a stocky, impeccably groomed man in his 50s who wears his dark suit as naturally as his skin. But I can't stop seeing his soothing formality as the spookiness of someone who followed his father, grandfather and great-grandfather into the funeral business. We take chairs at a circular glass table in the middle of a room painted in unemotional tones, carpeted thickly and made almost misty by flute music exhaling through speakers like audio dry ice. It's then I find out that Bill has never seen Six Feet Under.
"No, I have not," he says when I ask, "because I don't like to watch shows like that."
There's a split second of stiff silence.
"And," he adds, softening a little, "because I don't have HBO."
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It was Bill's call to go with online funerals.
"I felt it was an interesting innovation," he says. "I'm not very technologically astute, but I do like innovation. And I'm always looking for benefits for our families."
They're called "Eulogycasts" by the dot-com outfit—Trivision Solutions Inc., based in the virtual-Danish tourist town of Solvang, California—that invented and promotes them. The concept of a World Wide Website sendoff starts my mood swinging, from what-else-is-new to what's-this-world-coming-to to I-can't-believe-this-hasn't-been-on-Six-Feet-Under.But Bowers says it was an easy call.
"I've seen this transition coming for 10 years," he says. "People have been doing slide shows, making videotapes, putting them to music, and this seems to be the next step."
The next step? Toward nobody doing anything together because they can do everything online?! Toward skipping your dad's funeral this afternoon because, well, you're not speaking to your brother, and what the hell, you can download it tonight—and fast forward through the parts where hammy Uncle Thorval turns his eulogy into a self-serving rant?! Toward turning Life's Final Truth into a trite, digitalized copout?! Let's hear it for the next step! I say all this to Bowers, in so many exclamation-pointless words.
But Bowers says online funerals simply employ technology to personalize traditional ceremonies.
"More and more families, particularly in Southern California, come from someplace else," he says, "and people from around the world and people of low or moderate income often don't have a way to make it to the funeral of a loved one. This way, they can log onto a computer and participate. It provides a way for families to honor and preserve the legacy of the person who died. That's what funerals are for, anyway."
Dilday has been doing online funerals for about a year, and Bowers says people react quickly when he offers the service.
"There doesn't seem to be a middle-of-the-road position," says Bowers. "Either the first reaction is, 'No!'—and these tend to be people who are not computer literate—or they think it is an outstanding idea."
I ask how much Dilday is charging for a Eulogycast, and Bowers says, "For now, nothing."
And that leaves me feeling pretty shallow, since I can't help thinking this is something Nate would say on Six Feet Under. But I tell Bill Bowers about the show, anyway—how it's the story of a family funeral parlor; that the patriarch of the family business dies, bringing everybody, including a prodigal son, together to continue his legacy; that every episode begins with a death that underscores the brevity of life as the characters pursue the meaning of their day-to-day existence.
Bowers listens, then says, "Sounds like my story.
"I grew up in the funeral business, I grew up in a funeral home in Maine," he says. "I started helping my dad and grandfather when I was 12 years old, carrying flowers. I was always in that environment, watching people deal with death. I've experienced all kinds of emotions. And when I thought of the deaths that awaited me, I said to myself, 'I am prepared.' But when my own father died, that couldn't have been further from the truth."
Bowers isn't talking about Eulogycast anymore—not any more than he's talking about any of the strategies people use to make sense of life and ease the pain of death.
"I had all the tools, but I didn't handle it any better," Bowers says. "Now I have greater insight, though, because I experienced the loss of someone close. The best thing is I understand it's normal. You can't avoid it. Death is not a tragedy. The tragedy is people denying their grief, denying their feelings. But that gets out of my realm. I don't profess to be an expert in grief and grief therapy. A funeral is only the end of a process. It doesn't help you forget. You never forget."
We sit there in what would be silence but for the flute music, and then I ask Bowers if people sometimes expect too much of funerals. He smiles as comfortingly as possible and says, "They may."
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