Of course, for $2,000 we can…

Even before the reality of death, meaning specifically my own mortality, had become clear to me, I was aware that there was something not quite right in the funeral industry. I remember reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus during the 70’s, and this particular panel – a reproduction of his earlier work, “Prisoner on the Hell Planet,” always bothered me:


This is the funeral industry’s version of “would you like fries with that,” the upsell in a moment of vulnerability, in this case, grief instead of hunger. As a young man in those years, I recall going to the family’s traditional mortuary in town and considered making some pre-need arrangements after an uncle of mine passed away far too early; I got the grand tour, was shown all the luxurious options, carefully steered to expensive add-ons like hermetically sealed bronze caskets with foam-padded, velvet-lined eternal resting places, and effectively handled in the same way as a master car salesman would have done. Fortunately for me and unfortunately for the funeral home, I had the presence of mind to say I wanted to sleep on my decision before signing that carefully-prepared contract, and came to my senses before I went back.

It wasn’t too long after the rise of the internet that I discovered the benefit of ordering caskets online – even Costco sells caskets these days, and you can get a perfectly lovely one for less than, $1,000, a quarter of what the average funeral home would charge you for the same goods. Naturally a funeral director will try to dissuade you from this option, but in most states they are legally obligated to use a shipped casket if the client desires it. Beware, however, that if you choose this option, the company will try to make up their loss in other ways. As an additional reference, here’s a blog post from someone who had a satisfactory experience ordering online caskets twice.

As my mother entered her twilight years and, as an only child, it was clear that any arrangements would fall to me, I took another trip to the family mortuary to see about arrangements for her. Even with a cremation and interment of the cremains, the funeral home costs would have amounted to well over $6,000.00. To be fair, I must say that at no time did our funeral home act unprofessionally or with malice, but there was always that pressure to maximize the cost “out of respect for the dead.” Again fortunately, another option was open to me, which – in deference to mother’s wishes – I availed myself of. More on this later.

Over at reddit today, I found an amazing essay by an (obviously anonymous) funeral director who spilled his guts on on the entire industry’s shenanigans, and offered a plethora of resources and information for people looking to inform themselves. I quote it below, in toto because it’s worth the read. With thanks to redditor /u/arrghbrains, and only slightly bowdlerized for family friendliness:

Throwaway, obviously. I’m a funeral director. Our entire industry is basically a pyramid scheme. It blows my mind how blindly people accept that certain things “have to” be done to the body of their loved one. Think about that for a second: this is the last tangible remnant of someone you loved and you are now going to pay stranger thousands (oftentimes HUNDERDS of thousands) of dollars to (warning: graphic from here on out) systematically mutilate that body.

There is nothing dignified about having one’s mouth wired shut, eyelids forced closed by spiked plastic contact lenses, and ramming a trocar into the abdomen to puncture organs so that they can be suctioned out. After the embalming fluid is introduced, the anus and vagina are stuffed with cotton and other absorbent materials to prevent what we refer to as “purge.” This charming phenomenon can occur any time after death – yes, before or after embalming, at any stage of decomposition – when the fluid created by tissues breaking down is leaked through any nearby orifice, oftentimes the nether regions.

The process creates an enormous environmental problem; using toxic chemicals which are flushed into our sewers along with those pureed livers, hearts, spleens, pancreas’ which then also flow into our sewers. Oh, what’s that? I told you embalming is a legal requirement for public sanitation? That’s utter bullshit. If anything, it creates a sanitation problem if the cemetery you use is anywhere near a municipal water line, which most “commercial” cemeteries are.

In fact, in most states, the law only requires embalming if you are transporting a body across state lines or are not planning to inter for more than 72 hours and/or having a public viewing. It has not a single thing to do with public health. It’s a cash cow, plain and simple. It is barbaric, costly, and does not keep the body from deteriorating. But we’ll tell you just about anything you need to hear to get you to agree to it.

What I’m doing here is incredibly illegal and I know it, but on the slim-to-none-chance that you’re a sharp-minded consumer in the midst of your grief and call my state’s licensing board about it, all I have to do simply tell them you were mistaken. I’ve seen funeral directors force-feed families absolute horseshit – saying anything – to get them to sign a contract. Here’s a hint: don’t sign any pre-printed “form” contracts. Most of the contracts we use are super vague, so we can charge you for just about anything and justify it by pointing to your signature on the dotted line. It is in your best interest to only agree to specific itemized charges – i.e., have the hearse but no limousines. Or have hair/makeup done without any embalming. The law is very specific and on your side, but we count on your ignorance and vulnerability.

Even better, find a trusted friend or family member who is more emotionally stable right now and appoint them as your lawyer/detective. You know that bitchy sister-in-law everyone has who makes major holidays a nightmare? I can spot her a mile away and will do everything I can to keep her out of financial discussions – because I know she will take that obnoxious nagging and throw it at me for every single penny I’m trying to get out of your family. See my co-workers standing around looking somber and respectful? They’re not there to just have a presence of authority, they are studying you. They are watching the family dynamic and will report back to me with any potential angles I can play to manipulate your emotions, which family members are taking it the hardest and will therefore be the easiest prey, and their estimation of your financial well-being. If, by the way, you appear to be less affluent, I’ll tell you to take your business elsewhere. This is not a hospital and I don’t provide a service – this is a business. If you aren’t paying me (in full and up front, generally), all you’re getting is my sympathy.

Do yourself a favor and read the FTC Funeral Rule. It’s very clear and concise in stating what you as the consumer are required to do and what rights you have. Did you know the casket I’m selling you for $5000 is really just a nicely decorated plywood box? If you were smarter, you’d know you don’t have to buy that from me. In fact, the law requires me to allow you to “BYOB.” Costco and Wal-Mart sell very reasonably priced nice caskets on their websites. If you happen to be armed with that tidbit of information, I’ll try to make it a practical issue: it will be easier to use the caskets we already have here. Another line of crap. All of the caskets at the funeral home are demo models (and are actually nice napping spots on slow days). Anything you buy will be delivered to the funeral home via freight the next day, just like the Wal-Mart caskets.

Another well-worn sales tactic is to try to shame you into going along with the exorbitant cost, implying you didn’t really love grandma enough if you spend less than five figures with me. You should know, by the way, that everything you buy from me – a guestbook, prayer cards, even the damn obituary notices – is marked up at least200%. See the picture I’m painting here, kids? Smoke and mirrors. It hasn’t always been like this, but with the corporatization of the death care industry, the almighty dollar is the only consideration anymore.

Whew, this is getting to be a novel. Sorry, hang with me just a bit longer – we are getting to the major issue here.

Right now – literally right now, August 16, 2013 – the FTC is reviewing a merger between the two largest funeral service corporations in the United States: Stewart and SCI. Stewart has 500-ish locations while SCI has 2000+. This will create a mega-Decepticon-conglomerate that will control at least 40% of all funeral service business transactions in this country – and that, my friends, is what antitrust regulations refer to as a monopoly.

We are racing full speed ahead to the genesis of the McFuneralHome and nobody is doing anything about it. The reason? Misdirection. There’s no Stewart Funeral Home or SCI Mortuary in your hometown. They’re operating under the same names they always have, letting you believe that the good people of Bubba & Sons Memorial Chapels would never steer you wrong. Bubba’s been around for 50 years! Bubba’s handled your family’s funerals for generations! Let me tell you something: Bubba cashed out years ago and is pretty much a figurehead at this point. Check his website carefully: at the bottom, you’ll probably see a copyright for either “Dignity Memorials” (SCI) or “STEI” (Stewart).

Every single thing you’ve read in this thread about cutting corners, shoddy work, under-trained and under-paid employees, outsourcing certain processes, covering up mistakes… ALL OF IT HAPPENS IN THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY. Now, most of us are decent human beings and aren’t interested in getting freaky with dear old granny, but in terms of services performed and their actual value, you trust us WAY, WAY TOO MUCH.

You know how lousy the cell phone service provider market is right now and how worked up everyone gets about that? The funeral industry is worse.

And we should all be raising hell, because EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US is going to have to conduct business with the deathcare industry eventually — be an informed consumer and know who you’re really giving your money to.

I know I’ve hyperlinked this to death, but please read the last one from the Funeral Consumers Alliance on how horrifyingly out of control this situation has gotten:

“It’s alarming to think that a company with a long track record of abusing consumers at the worst times of their lives might get even bigger,” said Josh Slocum, FCA’s executive director. “For at least 15 years grieving families around the country have complained to us about the practices at SCI funeral homes and cemeteries. From lying about options in order to boost the funeral bill, to digging up graves to re-sell them to another unsuspecting family, to denying the legal rights of LGBT people to make funeral arrangements for their partners. You name it, we’ve heard it.”

Funeral Consumers Alliance reminds the Federal Trade Commission that funeral purchases are unlike any other in their potential to harm the customer. Families buying funeral and cemetery services are incredibly vulnerable and have been subject to deceitful and egregious conduct.

“This is not a run of the mill merger; this isn’t about whether a $20 retail product will cost consumers $5 more,” Slocum said. “We’re talking real money here. Funeral consumers often make great economic sacrifices to bury their loved ones. The average full-service funeral runs in excess of $7,000 and often for much more at SCI’s Dignity locations. Especially when it has faced less competition, SCI has increased prices and we can expect more of the same if this merger occurs. Given the lack of knowledge about funeral options and the stress of grief, we can’t just say a ‘rational consumer’ will vote with their dollars and choose another funeral home. That’s not how the unique funeral transaction works, and that reality is why the FTC specifically regulates funeral homes.”

It’s worth it to read this entire exposé, and follow the hyperlinks as well. Another good source of information is at Reader’s Digest, long an advocate of common sense for the consumer.; the original page is 404 but this information was extracted from the Wayback Machine:

  • Go ahead and plan your funeral, but think twice before paying in advance. You risk losing everything if the funeral home goes out of business. Instead, keep your money in a pay-on-death account at your bank.
  • If you or your spouse is an honorably discharged veteran, burial is free at a Veterans Affairs National Cemetery. This includes the grave, vault, opening and closing, marker, and setting fee. Many State Veterans Cemeteries offer free burial for veterans and, often, spouses.
  • You can buy caskets that are just as nice as the ones in my showroom for thousands of dollars less online from Walmart, Costco, or straight from a manufacturer.
  • On a budget or concerned about the environment? Consider a rental casket. The body stays inside the casket in a thick cardboard container, which is then removed for burial or cremation.
  • Running a funeral home without a refrigerated holding room is like running a restaurant without a walk-in cooler. But many funeral homes don’t offer one because they want you to pay for the more costly option: embalming. Most bodies can be presented very nicely without it if you have the viewing within a few days of death.
  • Some hard-sell phrases to be wary of: “Given your position in the community …,” “I’m sure you want what’s best for your mother,” and “Your mother had excellent taste. When she made arrangements for Aunt Nellie, this is what she chose.”
  • “Protective” caskets with a rubber gasket? They don’t stop decomposition. In fact, the moisture and gases they trap inside have caused caskets to explode.
  • If there’s no low-cost casket in the display room, ask to see one anyway. Some funeral homes hide them in the basement or the boiler room.
  • Ask the crematory to return the ashes in a plain metal or plastic container—not one stamped temporary container. That’s just a sleazy tactic to get you to purchase a more expensive urn.
  • Shop around. Prices at funeral homes vary wildly, with direct cremation costing $500 at one funeral home and $3,000 down the street. (Federal law requires that prices be provided over the phone.)
  • We remove pacemakers because the batteries damage our crematories.
  • If I try to sell you a package that I say will save you money, ask for the individual price list anyway. Our packages often include services you don’t want or need.
  • Yes, technically I am an undertaker or a mortician. But doesn’t funeral director have a nicer ring to it?
  • Sure, you can store ashes in an urn or scatter them somewhere special, but nowadays you can also have them crushed into a real diamond, integrated into an underwater coral reef, or blasted into space.
  • It’s usually less expensive if the body is not present for the funeral.
  • If the deceased’s favorite outfit is a size too small or a size too big, bring it to us anyway. Part of our job is making the clothes lie perfectly.
  • Never trust a funeral director who says, “This is the last thing you can do for your loved one.”
  • You don’t need to spend money to have a meaningful service. Consider a potluck at the widow’s home or an informal ceremony at a favorite park, and ask survivors to tell stories or read poetry.
  • Always bring another person when you meet with me, ideally someone who’s not as emotionally attached to the deceased.
  • It might be wise to check out just who owns your local funeral home. Corporate chains have bought out hundreds of family-owned funeral homes in recent years, but they often keep the original name, appearance, and even some employees after a buyout. The one thing they usually do change? The prices

As it turned out, before my mother passed away in her 90’s of old age and dementia, she was savvy enough to make some critical decisions about her wishes, which I followed. Her body was donated to a medical center, where it will be used to further knowledge; at no cost to us, the center will cremate her remains when they’re done, and bury them with dignity in a donor’s plot, as well as adding her name to a permanent memorial for those who have done this. We held a memorial service at a country club where one of the family was a member; total cost: under $1,000. Add to this an “in memoriam” headstone, and the total expenses for a wonderful and dignified send-off came in at under two grand.

There are alternatives these days, and many of them. A great list, with carefully-researched costs, pros, and cons, can be seen at AlterNet, but the executive summary is:

  1. Donate Your Whole Body to Science
  2. Donate Your Body to Help Catch the Bad Guys
  3. Donate Your Body to Be Displayed in the Body Worlds Exhibitions and Become an Anatomical Work of Art
  4. Dig Your Own Grave
  5. Green Burial in a Preserve
  6. If You Must Have a Coffin, Buy One Made of Cardboard or Make a ‘Quick Coffin’
  7. Cremation

My wife and I have seriously discussed option 2, specifically the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the oldest body farm in the country. The only cost incurred is that of transporting the body; even there, funeral homes will try to gouge you and insist that bodies must be embalmed for transport, but this is not the case – if you’re considering this option, talk to them directly and they will be able to provide the best information about how to get yourself or a loved one there at the least cost.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

2 responses to “Of course, for $2,000 we can…

  1. As an observant Catholic, there are some limitations to what I can do, but I trust my observant Catholic daughters to do what is necessary and not pay a whole lot in a crisis. They’re both good at that.

    If it were up to me, I’d have my body donated to science or something and then have the ashes dumped in my garden. It isn’t, and that’s a battle that I am not willing to fight.

    Thank you for this very valuable information!

    • I think I would get some disapproving noise from my church as well, if I wanted to hie me off to the body farm or go the cremation route. And for similar reasons. At least with us, there’s no hard and fast rule – for example, people in Japan are legally required to be cremated, so there’s no getting around it and they have to be sensitive to local customs. But I know they strongly *discourage* alternate practices. Frankly, I don’t think God cares one way or the other. What’s important is not the shell we leave behind, but rather how the spirit has responded during our sojourn. My two penn’orth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s