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Funeral giants, church make two new deals

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Two new alliances between corporate funeral industry giants and Catholic institutions were announced last month, raising anew questions about the influence of private, for-profit entities over church life.

The Tucson diocese announced the signing of a “long-term” contract March 16 for management of the church’s local cemeteries by the Loewen Group, the second largest funeral chain in North America.

In a separate development, Christian Funeral Services, a subsidiary of the largest U.S. death care conglomerate, Service Corporation International, gave a “major gift” to the Pontifical North American College in Rome for the construction of a bishops’ suite in honor of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and a new chapel, to be called the Maria Immaculata Chapel, in honor of Bernardin’s successor, Cardinal Francis George.

Both announcements come amid a campaign by death care giants to capture more of the Catholic market. On Jan. 30, NCR reported that Stewart Enterprises had leased land on cemeteries owned by the Los Angeles archdiocese, with plans to build and operate upscale mortuaries at six of the 11 cemeteries in the archdiocese.

The Stewart deal in Los Angeles prompted SCI -- Service Corporation International -- the largest chain in the United States -- to form a subsidiary, Christian Funeral Services, dedicated specifically to promoting business in the Catholic world, according to John Morrow, executive vice president of SCI and president of Christian Funeral Services.

According to a brief Christian Funeral Services news release, the new residence and chapel in Rome “will allow the college to offer more suitable accommodations for their episcopal guests.”

NCR made repeated attempts to contact a spokesperson , but no one from Christian Funeral Services was available to answer questions about the gifts.

A news release from the Tucson diocese said the decision to turn over the day-to-day operation of the local cemeteries to Loewen will allow the church to regain control of its cemeteries, which were sold to the Los Angeles archdiocese in 1989. That year, a financial crisis, resulting in part from investments in a family-centered UHF television venture, brought diocesan debt to a whopping $33 million.

Both announcements rekindle questions about just how far the church can go in working with death care conglomerates motivated by profits and still provide for the spiritual and pastoral needs of faith communities.

Joseph B. Sankovich, former director of cemeteries for the Seattle archdiocese, heads a Tucson-based consulting service that focuses almost exclusively on Catholic cemeteries and works with 20 dioceses in the United States and Canada. He said the Tucson diocesan deal and the broader issues it represents are “on the minds of the vicars general, the moderators of the curia, the diocesan cemetery directors” throughout the country. “From what I can tell, other dioceses are asking the question of what this means in terms of ministry, when for-profits take over their administration.”

‘A call to the bishops’

Sankovich said the Tucson news is “a call to the bishops.” That kind of movement, he said, “should alert them, one and all, that they are going to be pressured incredibly hard to see cemeteries as nothing other than moneymaking or a way to get out from under the burdens of administration.” He said the bishops must understand that “what happens in one diocese has a major impact in other dioceses throughout the United States and Canada.”

Cemetery administration, he said, should not be seen as misery but as ministry. He said the bishops should take leadership regarding the cemeteries, establishing “an office targeted directly toward death and funeral issues that puts the church’s cemeteries ... at the highest level of priorities.”

In contrast to the mortuary construction deal struck last year between Stewart Enterprises and the Los Angeles archdiocese (NCR, Jan. 30) under which Stewart will build and run mortuaries on leased Catholic cemetery land, Tucson has contracted with Loewen only to manage cemetery operations.

Loewen officials said they intend to retain all 34 diocesan employees and 21 sales counselors who previously worked in Catholic cemeteries in Tucson under Los Angeles archdiocesan control. But, industry critics say, even if employees are retained, such alignments bring into question the church’s capacity to care spiritually and pastorally for bereaved parishioners.

“Which snake do you want to kiss?” quipped Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral and Memorial Society of America and author of the popular guidebook Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love. When it comes to corporations, she said, “stockholders are the clients, not the neighborhood grieving families.” Nonprofit funeral societies and other industry watchers have documented cases where funeral prices have risen when corporate chains move into areas previously dominated by independent mortuaries.

Fred Allison, of the press office of the Tucson diocese, emphasized that a board will oversee the operations of the cemeteries and “work with Loewen to see that any lowering or raising of prices is reasonable in terms of similar services provided in the community.”

He said the board, which will include clergy, religious women and representatives from the various ethnic and cultural communities served by the cemeteries, will work to maintain the “traditional practices of the Catholic cemeteries of Tucson of free indigent burial and compassionate support for indigent families.”

Allison compared the church’s decision to work with funeral conglomerates to that of Catholic schools who contract food services to provide meals for students. “There is also a sacred element to Catholic schools, but we don’t operate our own dairies, we don’t own our own milk trucks,” he said. “There is a very pragmatic, practical way to approach this.”

Fastest growing

The Vancouver-based Loewen Group reported a 53 percent rise in cemetery revenues for 1997, according to company documents. It is “North America’s second largest and fastest growing funeral home and cemetery operator in terms of revenue and assets,” adding $507.7 million in acquisitions in 1997, including 133 funeral homes and 172 cemeteries, a Web site news release states.

Industry watchers say both Loewen and the church stand to benefit financially from contracts like the one signed in Tucson where the company will direct pre-need and at-need sales of cemetery products and services, administration and perpetual care maintenance.

“It’s probably worth it just to get the church’s mailing lists,” Carlson said. She said Loewen could use its position at the Catholic cemeteries to make referrals to Loewen-owned funeral homes. “For people who own burial sites, they can say, ‘Don’t you want to prepay your funeral home? There’s none on campus, but there sure is one nearby.’ It’s going to look like the blessing of the church on that funeral home. It’s hard to buy that kind of publicity, but they obviously did.”

Allison said that after nine years of management of Tucson’s Catholic cemeteries by Los Angeles, the Loewen contract and years of “judicial management [and] generosity” would make it possible for the local church to repurchase its burial grounds.

Seeing what it can do

Allison said his experience with Loewen has shown “they are very professionally as well as personally interested in seeing this concept go into place, in seeing what it can do for them and for a diocese of the Roman Catholic faith.”

Carlson said it is difficult to know “what the motivating factor is for the diocese.” She said there could be “an oral agreement that there will be a voluntary contribution to the bishop’s fund.” Another industry watcher said that some have speculated that Loewen might be advancing funds to the diocese to allow the latter to pay its debt to Los Angeles. When NCR asked Allison about the financial arrangements, he said, “all such information would be confidential under the terms of the agreement.”

Carlson said that Loewen’s history with the National Baptist Convention USA shows that the company “is more than willing to share the wealth with people in positions to steer business their way.”

Carlson was referring to a 1995 agreement between Loewen and the Baptist Convention, reportedly the country’s largest group of African-American congregations. In August 1995, The Washington Post reported that under the agreement, pre-need cemetery sales representatives contracted by Loewen, churches recruiting sales representatives and the Baptist Convention all received commissions for sales of cemetery goods and services. The convention’s cut -- 5 percent -- was destined for its Christian Education Fund. The contract made Loewen the convention’s “death care provider of choice.”

The convention’s president, the Rev. Henry Lyons, said he saw the sales program as a means to assist black communities economically. Some black funeral directors derided the program as a means for the company to gain leverage in black communities. Large white-owned chains have had difficulty entering this market.

The Loewen Group is presently cooperating with federal and state investigations involving Lyons’ finances. Two charges of grand theft and another of racketeering were brought against Lyons in February in a Tampa, Fla., court. Prosecutors accused him of stealing money destined for church projects and of using his status and the convention’s status to swindle large sums from corporations.

In July 1997, Lyons’ name hit the media when his wife, Deborah Lyons, allegedly set fire to a $700,000 Florida home owned jointly by her husband and Bernice Edwards, a high church official. Deborah Lyons later reversed her statement to investigators that she started the fire and instead claimed the fire was an accident. She pleaded not guilty to arson charges.

National Catholic Reporter, April 10, 1998