Friday, November 20, 2009

It slices! It dices! But wait! There's more!

Up until a few minutes ago, I was having a great day. Really great.

A walk downtown to enjoy the city’s lively energy. Great lunch with my favorite companion at an Irish pub. Terrific pre-Christmas sale. A lovely solo walk home, lost in my own thoughts while the city swirled about me. A patch of blue sky, a November rarity in Seattle.

All in all a wonderful day.

Until I made a strategic error. I picked up the mail. Four catalogs (it’s that season). A great big post card giving me 20% off on things I don’t need and hadn’t thought about wanting. A lovely, very touching fundraising letter (I should know, I wrote it – if you get it, you should definitely send a check). And . . . a letter offering me a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” (Their exclamation point.)

Oh, good grief.

I know, I know, we need to plan for things. The only certainty in our lives is that they’re going to end. But for goodness’ sake, I just had one of those birthdays. You know, the ones that put you in a different census track? The birthdays that make you check a different box on surveys and forms. The ones that qualify you for, um, discounts at lots of places. The kind of birthday that leaves you fearing that some waitress at a Denny’s or an IHOP is going to call you “Dahrlin’.”

When you’ve just had one of those birthdays, a cremation invitation is not the first thing you want to find in your mail box.

I admit it. I’ve written my share of letters offering people things – the “do this, get that” stuff that clutters up recycle bins all over America. I’ve done it. I’m darned good at it. And I made a pretty good living with it. But even I, who’ve sold everything from season’s tickets for the Toledo Mud Hens to around-the-world trips that started at $65,000 per person . . . even I have never tried to sell somebody a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!”

As a professional hack (and, mind you, I mean that in the most respectful way imaginable) I’ve got a huge problem with this offer. Let’s assume for the moment that I really was looking forward to getting a piece of mail offering me a great deal on my own cremation. It’s a stretch, but let’s make that assumption for the sake of argument. Let’s also assume – very safely, I might add – that I am highly suspicious of the funeral industry in America and consider most of them to be just shy of charlatans, making me somewhat susceptible to a sales pitch for an honest alternative. And let’s further assume – this one calls for a momentary suspension of disbelief – that I’m someone who’d actually make a decision for the final handling of my earthly remains based on a direct mail sales pitch.

Even if all those assumptions were true (and only one of them is), even then, I don’t think I’d enter a sweepstakes to win a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” That’s the deal: I just send in the little card with all my personal information (they’ve thoughtfully already filled in my name and address, but, darn it, they truly need my email and phone number in order to help figure out which plan is best for me – let me guess, it’s not the basic one) . . . and, presto, once a month they’re going to pull somebody’s name out of a hat and give the lucky winner a “Free Pre-Paid Cremation!” Such a deal.

I can’t quite get my head around the concept of “Free Pre-Paid,” but we’ll leave that for another conversation. I mean, how can something be “Free” if it’s also been “Pre-Paid”? (OK, now we’ll leave that for another time.)

These folks make several arguments that are probably sound – but, again, when you’ve just had one of those birthdays, they’re a little bit jarring.

First, they assure me, their pre-paid cremation service is a good thing for my family – it will let them give me a simple, personal service at their own convenience. I do understand that. But does anybody else pick up an undertone of “that way you can die without causing anybody to miss an appointment with their personal trainer” – or am I just being super sensitive?

Then they close in for the kill (if you’ll pardon the expression). They remind me that we live in a mobile society (no kidding – my sister just had to replace the “W” page in her address book – I’ve moved so many times she’s rubbed a hole in it). And then . . . I try to imagine a writer locked away in a cubicle somewhere trying to bang out this letter on a fast-turnaround deadline . . . they point out that because we’re all moving around, “placing a loved one in a ‘local’ cemetery may not be as functional as it used to be.”


OK. I get it. I’m going to stay where you bury me, but you may not be there to check up on me. You know, I don’t think either of us should worry too much about it. Really. My feelings won’t be hurt if you don’t drop by. And, let’s be frank, nobody’s going to come visit after this group drops my ashes at sea either.

These people probably mean well. I'm sure they do.  The P.S. reminds me that in case I die before I have time to plan for it, they’d be happy to cremate me then, too. See?  They're good people.  And right after the P.S. there’s a small italic sentence begging my forgiveness in case the letter reached me “at a time of serious illness or death in your family.”

I appreciate their thoughtfulness. Really, I do. But I honestly think this letter hits a new low in American consumerism. It certainly hit a new low for me when it comes to picking up the mail. Yep, it’s a free market. And, yep, everybody has the right to make an honest buck. But for propriety’s sake, can’t we save this kind of pitch for the kinds of products that keep America strong . . . the ShamWow, the Salad Shooter, the Bump It, and the Aqua Globe?

So I’m going to close now and try to resuscitate what remains of a perfectly good day. And hope that tomorrow’s mail contains something more pleasant, like a letter from the IRS.

What’s showed up lately in your mail box? To leave a comment, just click “ Post a Comment” below. I’d love to hear from you.