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News Flash: No One Gets Out Alive!

Neptune Society Charged with Fraud as America’s Life Expectancy Shrinks

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra | Credit: Paul Wellman

I’d like to think I’m more than the sum of my algorithms. I say that because the geniuses who curate my Facebook and Google ads have got me seriously down. Gone are the blizzard of pop-up ads relating to erectile dysfunction, replaced instead by new ones extolling the advantages of certain adult diapers. Now I’m besieged by endless animated ads having to do with the scourge of unwanted belly fat. Not a pretty mirror for all the graying Dorians out there. Even more discouraging, I find my mailbox stuffed monthly with notices from the Neptune Society, explaining it’s never too soon to begin planning for the forever of never. As a member of the “pre-deceased,” I am told, I should take care of matters when they still qualify as “pre-needs,” and not impose that burden on my loved ones ​— ​you know, the ones who pretend not to notice the ocean of jiggling suet that my algorithm indicates adorns my midriff. 

In case you missed it, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the Neptune Society this week for high crimes and misdemeanors against the dead and nearly dead. Based on the apocalyptically negative Yelp reviews lodged against the Santa Barbara branch of the Neptune Society, one might think Becerra should have taken this action well before filing any of the more than 100 lawsuits he’s initiated against the Trump administration. Reading the complaint, one gets a picture of dead bodies piling up like so much cord wood in back-alley coolers while Neptune officials scramble fecklessly to find space in the nearest crematorium. 

Complaints abound over lengthy delays, surly service, calls not returned, and thank-you notes never delivered. Becerra’s lawsuit is worth reading just for the strained outrage. Neptune charges for services, merchandise, and something called “MEM.” That, Becerra informs us, stands for “Making Everlasting Memories.” Presumably, those are made by spending $442 to buy a 12-inch-long plywood box with a carboard insert into which the dearly departed’s cremains are poured. Or $200 for a five-inch-tall picture-frame urn ​— ​frame made of plastic. As for any romantic notions about dumping your loved one’s ashes at sea, forget about it. That’s an additional $285. The big problem Becerra found is that Neptune ​— ​which pretty much dominates the cremation market ​— ​shortchanged the pre-paid trust accounts created by pre-need customers to the tune of $100 million. That, in any context, qualifies as real money. It’s not clear in the lawsuit what Becerra thinks Neptune has done with this loot. But it calls into question what happens when the Tsilver Tsunami types who pre-paid start knocking on Neptune’s doors, demanding service.

Say what you will about Neptune’s ethics, but its timing is impeccable. It turns out that the life expectancy of the average American has declined now for three years in a row. For the average male, we can expect to live nearly five months fewer than our predecessors. For the average woman, it’s nearly two and a half months. This decline stands in violent but quiet contrast with what’s happening elsewhere in so-called developed nontotalitarian countries where citizens continue to live longer and longer. According to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this decline is attributable to so-called diseases of despair ​— ​suicide, drug overdose, obesity, and alcoholism—among those occupying the 25- to 64-year-old age bracket. This impulse toward joyless self-obliteration is especially pronounced among the 55- to 64-year-old set. 

Perhaps the loss of a few months on the tail end of one’s life doesn’t sound all that alarming. But when you look at the huge progress made in recent decades at reducing the death toll from car crashes, heart attacks, cancer, and AIDS, that’s a whole lot of new years on longer lives that have been statistically overwhelmed by this self-inflicted death march. Drug overdoses jumped 909 percent from 1999 to 2017 for those in the 55-64 range; suicides increased by 56 percent. 

These trends hold true for men and women of all ethnic stripes. It falls hardest on those with the least education and the least income. Geographically, it varies. New Hampshire has it the worst ​— ​no surprise for anyone who’s ever set foot there. But much of New England suffers. So, too, do the four states sharing the Ohio River Valley. There’s something about finding oneself economically irrelevant and redundant in a minimum-wage-gig economy that incites people to take a slow leap off a tall building. In one county, the authors found, a one percent increase in the unemployment rate correlated to a 3.6 percent jump in opioid deaths. But states with higher minimum-wage laws and earned income tax ​— ​like California ​— ​did notably better.

Of course, in the United States, access to health care has historically been a function of income. Price has been a significant barrier to care. Even so, the United States spends $10,200 per person on average on health care a year. That is by far the most of any country in the so-called civilized world. That’s twice as much as Germany, France, Ireland, and most European counties and $2,000 more than Switzerland, home to the second most expensive health-care system on the planet. The trend with lifespans has been brewing for a while. In the 1980s, we started to seriously lag relative to comparable economies. By 1998, our lifespans numbers were positively third world. Now, we are the only country on the planet moving backward.

Not a distinction to brag on. 

In the meantime, if you must die, go get yourself cremated at Simply Remembered on Calle Laureles. They’ll treat you right and charge you only half what Neptune does. Or, if you’re in the market for a sporty, metallic-blue coffin ​— ​okay, it is a little garish and a bit weird for an impulse buy ​— ​I saw a few by the checkout line at Costco. They’re cheaper still. Based on the JAMA report, no Christmas tree would be complete without one.

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