The Common Good
May-June 2000

We All Have to Die

by Julie Polter | May-June 2000

But does it have to COST SO MUCH!?

Cheryl Grossman and her husband used to laugh together about all the "rigmarole" that most funeral services involved. So when he died suddenly in October 1997, Cheryl knew that he would want the arrangements to be simple. Grossman, with a friend to support her, went to a funeral home to arrange a direct cremation. The funeral director kept "upselling"—pressing her to consider more expensive alternatives.

"Had I not had a friend who went with me, and had I not had a firm resolve, I probably would have signed anything," she says. "To be manipulated in that way at that time was one of the most obscene things I’d ever experienced."

Cheryl Grossman’s funeral home encounter is a common one. Not so common is how she took her experience to church—and how her church embraced it. Cheryl’s Catholic parish, St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas, has offered a diverse array of practical and pastoral supports to the grieving for some time. Last year Grossman and two other parishioners helped create a death and funeral resource booklet that gathers information on all applicable parish ministries and other area resources in a convenient portable form. It includes specific information on affordable funeral options, planning sheets, and step-by-step advice for those dealing with a death in the family (see "Reclaiming Our Rites," p. 33).

Such a booklet is a simple, straightforward thing, but not every church would know how to welcome it. Most American Christians, including clergy, are almost as comfortable talking about the practical, concrete details of funerals as they are talking about the practical, concrete details of sex. In other words, the topic doesn’t come up much. And unlike sex, funeral planning isn’t a hot topic outside of church either.

So most just-bereaved people find themselves completely unprepared for the confusing and usually expensive decisions that have to be made about the preparation and final destination of a loved one’s body. The unscrupulous within the American funeral industry count on and exploit such ignorance and the vulnerability of the bereaved. They sell embalming (with full cosmetic makeover) as both desirable and necessary, a casket as more than a box, and seek to equate one’s love for the dead as directly proportional to dollars spent. It is big business, worth $25 billion annually in the United States alone. A family member’s funeral is one of the largest single purchases that many adults will make in their lifetime.

Many funeral home directors, crematorium owners, and commercial cemetery operators sincerely strive to serve their communities; many do not have profit as their only goal. Nonetheless, to be naive about the commercial realities of most "death care" services can lead to exploitation and additional heartbreak. The current American standard for funeral care is, in large part, a product of marketing. It is a sentimental, mass-produced packaging of "traditions" (many of which never were), aided by the general public’s ignorance of actual legal requirements concerning dead bodies.

No one deserves to be ripped off, especially when they are grieving. And, as might be expected, those who are the most traumatized or have the least money to lose are often the most vulnerable. This is reason enough to learn about misleading and fraudulent funeral practices and what can be done to counteract them.

Of equal importance for Christians and other people of faith is reclaiming the cultural and spiritual experience and rituals of death and grieving. Of all people, believers should know that, to bumpersticker it, Death Happens. The average person will be a mourner several times in his or her life, and eventually, the funeral guest of honor. Preparing for what is just another part of life does not have to be inherently morbid. Those who’ve dug into (no pun intended) the topic of caring for the dead and the grieving testify to rich opportunities for creativity, ministry, community, and deepened spirituality. Says Grossman, "It’s a paradox that end of life issues can generate so much life. But they do."

Of course a little rage is in order. In 1963 writer Jessica Mitford’s informative and witty The American Way of Death exhumed the funeral industry’s machinations to hyper-commercialize our grief and pain. Decades of education and activism have brought some reforms, but our culture’s death phobia and the siren call of profit seem to keep many shady and exploitative funeral practices going strong.

The unsuspecting can still pay 400 percent or more over wholesale for a casket. Embalming is still promoted as a public health or legal requirement when most often it is not. There are still funeral homes, cemeteries, and other "death care" providers who make fraudulent claims that certain caskets or vaults will protect or preserve the body (ultimately none of them do). Some funeral directors still have sales pitches designed to subtly shame survivors into spending much more than they or the deceased intended.

Even the most honest traditional funeral home operators are overseeing businesses with bottom lines that require huge mark-ups and the successful marketing of completely unnecessary services and accessories. An overabundance of funeral homes in most regions of the country only increases the pressure to produce a large profit on each funeral. Since the grief-stricken are in no mood to haggle, the selection of caskets, urns, plots, and grave markers are often the ultimate impulse buy.

One real-life example: Bob Massey, along with his sister and grandfather, made the arrangements after Massey’s father died suddenly at age 49. The Dallas funeral home staff who assisted them were helpful and low-key—the family sensed no high pressure sales pitch. Insurance covered the burial costs (with little left over). Bob didn’t think much about it until a year later when he saw a "60 Minutes" segment on funeral rip-offs. The show cited a figure as an example of an inflated price for a traditional funeral. The Massey family had paid three time that much for a relatively simple service. Massey now suspects the funeral home of tailoring its pricing to the amount of his father’s insurance policy.

Over the past decade, corporate buy-outs also have been bringing that special conglomerate magic to the funeral business. The large funeral chains such as Service Corporation International and Stewart Enterprises Inc. have expanded rapidly by quietly purchasing smaller chains or family-owned funeral homes (as well as cemeteries, monument dealers, etc.). The big companies usually retain the names of the local funeral homes (for the all-important element of familiarity and trust), but introduce seminar-honed sales techniques and efficiencies of scale such as centralized embalming facilities and warehousing of coffins and other supplies. The savings go to stockholders, not the grieving: In some markets, large consolidator’s funerals cost over 25 percent more than those done by other firms in the same area.

Despite their aggressive business savvy, these mega-undertakers aren’t invincible—one of the top three, Canada-based Loewen, went bankrupt last year, and SCI recently has endured anti-trust actions, regulatory fines, and plummeting stock. But big chains are still in business, posing as your friendly neighborhood undertaker while offering an expensive McFuneral to assuage your grief.

In 1984 the Federal Trade Commission established the Funeral Rule as a national standard for funeral home practices. The rule requires funeral homes to provide customers with price lists of goods and services and itemized statements of funeral costs. They must also provide accurate and current information about state legal requirements (or lack thereof) regarding embalming, cremation, and vaults. Many funeral homes comply with the Funeral Rule, but those who don’t might not get caught anytime soon. The FTC is notoriously lax in enforcing the rule and has no mechanism in place to assess compliance. Most consumers don’t even know the rule exists. Modern Maturity reports that in a recent survey by the American Association of Retired Persons, "only 8 percent of those surveyed knew that funeral homes are required to provide customers with a general price list."

Another barrier to legal accountability is that the rule only applies to funeral homes, not other providers of related goods and services. "The lines blur with consolidation," says Lisa Carlson, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, which works for funeral industry reform. "Cemeteries and monument dealers sell caskets now." The Funeral Consumers Alliance, AARP, and other organizations are optimistic that they can get the FTC to bring cemeteries and monument and casket dealers under the rule. Then they can turn their attention to problems with prepay plans, "sealer caskets," and other industry angles geared to profit on our fear of death and on the vulnerability of the grieving.

Churches ShOULD BE natural allies in such funeral advocacy work. But church response varies from place to place and congregation to congregation. For example, Catholic priests in some areas have started parish- or diocese-based affordable mortuary services and have emphasized bringing funerals back into the church. Conversely, in 1997 the Los Angeles Catholic archdiocese made a lease agreement with Stewart Enterprises Inc. (at the time the third largest funeral chain in the country), allowing the firm to build and operate upscale mortuaries in several of the archdioceses’ cemeteries. While now nonsectarian, many of the nation’s local memorial societies (nonprofit groups who cut funeral costs through cooperative buying power and are increasingly active for funeral reform and oversight) were formed under church leadership.

Most ministers work with the dying and grieving and officiate at funerals. But they don’t necessarily know more than people in the pews about the ins and outs of funeral arrangements. The standard seminary education usually doesn’t cover this level of nitty-gritty, nor do ministers usually accompany people to meetings with funeral home representatives.

"When a minister has to deal with a death in their own family, they are often shocked at the cost," says Terri Dalton, associate director of pastoral care and counseling for the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. "They have no idea it can be so high." Most pastors slowly learn the details of death and burial on the job. Some find a local funeral director they trust to guide them through the process.

The relationship between clergy and funeral homes can be good or bad for the person making funeral arrangements. "Unfortunately the funeral industry tries to network itself with many organizations that refer business to them. Their trade publications encourage volunteering with hospices, hospitals, and AIDS programs, for example," says Lamar Hankins, board president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Some funeral homes give donations to churches or gifts to clergy to encourage referrals. But, adds Hankins, "There are at least an equal number of clergy who are concerned about funeral industry excesses. They believe, as I do, that for people of faith, these things need to be returned more fully to the oversight of churches and religious groups."

"The churches can be the greatest allies of the funeral industry rip-off or they can be their biggest enemy," says Father Henry Wasielewski, a retired Catholic priest and Phoenix-based funeral activist. He believes that many clergy, especially those in wealthier churches, simply don’t suspect anything amiss with the high costs of funerals. Others know there are problems but feel it would be too "political" to get involved; they’ll find funds for the church member who can’t afford a loved one’s funeral, but not question why it costs so much. A few others happily take the golf club memberships or other freebies they get from the local funeral home.

Wasielewski sees great potential for concerned clergy to do good, simply through disseminating information. "In my book, it’s almost a social justice duty for pastors to find out if there’s a local mortuary that charges less than others and to tell their people about it." This can get interesting, of course, if one or more funeral home directors belong to a congregation.

Not every pastor is eager to become a funeral crusader, and not just because of church politics. "Clergy are like other people—they are often really uncomfortable talking about death," says Dalton. "They don’t necessarily want to bring up the topic of caskets, for instance." They are not alone. The spread of the hospice movement is evidence that American society slowly is becoming more open and knowledgeable about death and dying, but talking freely about funerals and burial arrangements is still often greeted with discomfort.

Lisa Carlson finds a certain irony in this. "It’s as though we want to accompany the dying and then leap over the dead body to console the grieving."

Whether you are behind the pulpit or in the pew, there are practical and spiritual benefits to attending to the logistics, liturgy, and legalities of death.

There is not a single "smart buyer," correct and reverent way to hold a funeral. Culture, family situations, religious traditions, circumstances of death, and the practicalities of what is available in a given location all come to bear on the type of funeral a person or family might choose. For example, increasing numbers of Americans are choosing direct burial or cremation, with a memorial service afterward. But others, whether for theological or cultural reasons, aren’t comfortable with these options. Fortunately, a wide range of funerals can be meaningful, fairly priced, and honoring to both God and the one who has died.

But this takes preparation. The more entrepreneurial (or downright scamming) members of the funeral business have found ways to add outrageous mark-ups to the simplest of burial or cremation arrangements. You can’t say no once you’re dead, and your survivors may not have the strength or knowledge to do it for you. With preparation, it is possible to almost completely opt out of the system and have do-it-yourself funerals. If that’s a bit much for your tastes, it’s certainly not difficult to become informed and plan ahead for your own funeral.

The best life-out-of-death experiences happen when education and forethought come together with practical support from a community of faith. Some church people have found profound comfort and power in the work of caring for their own dead, including preparing and moving the body. Others don’t want to even think about being that hands-on, but through a local memorial society or consortium of churches they’ve researched local funeral homes and found one with reasonable prices that’s willing to negotiate a special group rate. Endless variations on these approaches are possible, depending on local resources and the unique gifts of your congregation.

Getting the word out on funeral planning and consumer rights can be a unique justice ministry for a church. "The communities that need this information the most are the ones that are least likely to have the financial and educational resources to stand the pressures of the funeral industry," says Cheryl Grossman. Means of outreach include printing up fact fliers, offering a funeral-planning workshop, or negotiating (and subsidizing?) affordable services with a willing local funeral home for those in your area who are struggling financially.

"You can’t get out of life alive," someone once said. Spiritually speaking, Christians might not agree. But in physical terms, it sums it up nicely. Bodily death is an inevitable transition—not much choice in the matter. What the living can decide is whether that transition is one controlled overwhelmingly by commerce and the extremes of grief or one guided and supported within the community of the faithful.

JULIE POLTER is associate editor of Sojourners.

For further reading

The American Way of Death Revisited, by Jessica Mitford (Vintage Books, 1998).

Profits of Death: An Insider Exposes the Death Care Industries, by Darryl J. Roberts (Five Star Publications, 1997).

The Interfaith Funeral Information Committee Web site has plenty of advice and outrage. (www.xroads.com/~funerals)

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