e-mail us

Inside NCR

Burying the dead a dubious undertaking

When on occasion we address the crass rip-offs practiced by large sections of the funeral industry, there is always a lively response.

Next to living, dying is the most important event that will ever befall us. Death raises up all the good and bad, pain and joy, folly and fear of our entire lives and renders it all definitive and eternal. There is nothing to prepare us for such an epic moment. If existence had followed a different blueprint, all this would be happy and victorious, a climax. Instead, with few exceptions, death descends as doom or gloom, amid sorrow and separation -- the angels may be singing in heaven for all we know, but in the natural order funerals are a time of lamentation.

At such a time, the bereaved are vulnerable. Sadly, there are people who prey on this vulnerability. This takes us back to the death care industries.

A new book, Profits of Death: An Insider Exposes the Death Care Industries, by Darryl J. Roberts (Five Star Publications, PO Box 6698, Chandler AZ 85246-6698; 238 pages, $17.95), is the latest damning indictment of the greed of the funeral industry. A novelty here is the fact that the author is a former undertaker who has seen the light after retiring rich, but this blow is softened by a foreword by Fr. Henry Wasielewski, who has made heroic efforts to expose and reform the funeral industry. "Please understand that there are conscientious operators in the funeral and cemetery industries," Roberts writes, correctly making the obligatory nod to the honest brokers before going to town after the more avid.

The avid feed on our ignorance: "Bear in mind ... that much of the manipulative marketing strength of the death merchants is predicated on your having little or no knowledge of exactly what they do to earn their money."

Take embalming. Many are led to believe it preserves the deceased's "natural" appearance for all time or at least a long time. "The truth however is that injecting the body with a formaldehyde solution retards the natural process of decomposition by only a few days," Roberts writes. He adds that much of the world views the American practice of applying cosmetics as grotesque.

Roberts takes the reader step by step through the mire of tricks, embarrassments and gimmicks the funeral merchants use to guiltify or otherwise persuade grieving loved ones to buy nothing but the best -- not necessarily the most expensive but the most expensive this particular sucker can be expected to afford.

A good example is the door-to-door cemetery plot salesperson, not yet an extinct species: "Some cemeteries have sales forces of literally thousands ... who descend upon neighborhoods at dusk." This is how the author himself got his start, so he knows. The gimmicks are worthy of a circus performance, for example the free plot. Needless to say, nothing ultimately is ever free. Motivation is primal: "We convinced our people that every door they knocked on had a $100 bill on the other side of it. All they had to do was get inside the home and make sure that they got it. It was either the customer's $100 bill or theirs. Not surprisingly, they felt they needed it more than the consumer did."

To the occasional response that the consumer wanted to be cremated, they were trained to answer, "Would you really be able to cremate one of your children?" People who wouldn't mind cremation of their own old corpse were softened up at mention of the children.

If this seems callous, remember that there is monumental money at stake. Several recent articles point out that there is a rush to gobble up the "death care" industry that traditionally was a local family business. In a long essay, Time magazine's Dec. 9, 1996 issue pointed out the stealth with which the few big corporations come to town, take over from mom and pop, who often can't afford to resist them, and keep the old family name as they jack up the prices using such euphemisms as "remerchandising."

Jessica Mitford, who wrote the 1963 landmark The American Way of Death, placed much of the blame on people's ignorance. She had plans to focus on these deceptive and predatory practices in a rewrite of her book (which, she joked, would be titled "Death Warmed Over"), but was herself cheated by death.

There are plenty of "independents" not yet gobbled up, but few of these are martyrs to the common good. "The best thing that can happen to a local funeral home is that Loewen buys the competition," one told Time, "because the prices will go through the roof."

The Loewen Group is Canadian, second biggest in the world, with estimated 1997 annual revenues of $908 million, according to The New York Times for March 30. This, however, is eclipsed by Service Corporation International, a U.S. corporation with estimated 1997 revenues of $2.294 billion from 2,800 funeral homes, 330 cemeteries and 140 crematoriums worldwide. In 1994, SCI bought up the two largest funeral chains in Britain, and in 1995 became biggest in Europe when it bought France's Lyonnaise des Eaux.

Those wishing to buy their death services from the big guys could also ask for Stewart Enterprises, Equity Corporation International or Carriage Services. Since The New York Times article appeared, of course, some of these may have gobbled up the others. It pays to ask who is the owner.

There is a massive onslaught on human dignity and propriety here. We need to ask ourselves, before it's too late, What do we still hold sacred? What is worthy of us? What is right and maybe holy? These are questions we owe it to the dead to ask.

There is one area the death care industries have not yet taken over: the transcendent, religious aspect. Even here they are making inroads, providing chapels in their funeral homes as alternatives to the parish church, sometimes offering the religious service as part of a total "package." People frequently complain that there has long been a too-cozy relationship between the local undertaker and the local clergy -- with edgy jokes about the undertaker's generous gift to Father at Christmas. The church needs to be very clear about whose side it's on. While there is a shred of spirit left, we need to hold on to it. If ever there is a time and place for priest, minister or rabbi to stand tall in the lives of their flocks, it is at death's door.

Any parish that has no ministry for death and dying ought to take another look at itself.

Where there's death there's hope.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997