Consumer protection

Like both Josh and Randy have stated, funeral homes and cemeteries can’t do their jobs of providing a worthwhile service if they don’t first stay in business. And to stay in business, you must first cover your overhead. If you can make a profit — not every one does, you know — you may be able to expand your services and hire more people. This is not a bad thing, by the way. With a sensitive topic like death care, “profit” is a filthy epithet. Yet, look at the highways during morning and evening rush. 99% of those harried motorists are bucking monstrous traffic jams for one reason: To make money. For themselves, and for their employers. I am licensed in my state for both cemetery and funeral services. Few states are as tightly controlled regarding death care than ours. We charged a total price in our cemetery that was significant, but once the memorial marker was installed after the service, we never got another penny from that family, even though they and their generations to follow will come visit that gravesite for scores of years. Who will be there to help them when they need information or park service? We didn’t charge admission or a fee to provide everyday service to park visitors…yet we had to pay people to be there in case someone did. Regard the cemetery plot this way: Coldly, as simply a storage space. Try and find a storage locker that will rent you a self-storage area the size of a grave that will only cost you $2000-$6000 over the next 100 years. Go ahead…add it up. You’ll be stunned how relatively cheap that gravesite is, and even if you regard it merely as a storage space. It seems expensive because you need to pay it all upfront. In my area, San Diego County, there has been only one new cemetery open in the last 45 years. Why is that? If cemeteries are such money-minters, wouldn’t there be dozens of new ones? No. Land is extremely expensive. Neighbors don’t want to live next door to one, though you’d think they’d welcome the park-like atmosphere and serenity, even though the family dog hates the military 21-gun salutes. At our very small (8 acre) cemetery, our MONTHLY water bill was $8K….and we recycle most of our water. On the funeral side, why aren’t new mortuaries opening up every week as the population pundits predict a massive wave of baby boomers dying off in the coming years? Because every funeral home must adhere to ultra-strict monitoring and inspection standards, and be constantly aware that a stiff fine might be awaiting with the next prospect or client. In the days before Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death” and other consumer activism forced the industry to more closely police itself, abuses were, yes, widespread. Fortunately, as the eyes watching us peer more closely and with more powerful hammers, the bad actors have gotten out of the business, leaving less profitable, but more ethical, independents to try and stay afloat amid a tide of corporate powers. Don’t get me wrong…given that we’re working with precious materials — the deceased human loved ones — we NEED a much higher standard of behavior and business practice than most other industries. In one way, the tight new controls are great because it forced out of business the shysters and pressure-mongers who gave the industry a bad name. Unfortunately, as the profit margins decline for independent operators due to sometimes-oppressive controls and restrictions, it becomes much easier for conglomerates, through mere economies of scale, to move in and control the death care markets in every region. For non-death care professionals, the HBO show “Six Feet Under” does a marvelous job of respecting our industry by dramatizing startlingly true situations. The evil “Kroener Corporation”, which is constantly threatening to put the Fisher Family Funeral Home out of business if they don’t sell out to them, is a daily fact in the real death care biz, though under a different name, which we all know. The Fishers are constantly under the gun by both consumers and corporate competitors trying to entrap them or play “gotcha” with the regulatory minutaie that fuels so much of the time death care providers must spend merely trying to stay within the increasingly restrictive law. On the TV show, any viewer can understand why poor David Fisher is such a worry-wart. Any death care professional can probably identify with every situation that has tested the Fishers during the show’s 5-year run. The farther away the decision maker in a funeral home — the local, on-the-job owner-operator vs. a distant, ivory tower CEO — gets from dealing directly with the family, the worse the service and care. When funeral home personnel are warned “Sell more or ELSE!” just to satisfy a corporate overlord’s arbitrary sales figure instead of rolling with the real marketplace, or prices are jacked up to support mega-corporate behemoths’ failing locations, everyone loses. In my hometown of St. Louis, the Kutis Funeral Homes, a long pillar of local business, used to have Cardinals announcer Jack Buck do their radio spots, announcing “When it comes to the professional and empathetic care of a lost loved one’s final needs, would you rather they be in the hands of a licensed funeral director….or a commission salesman hired with no experience necessary?”. Yet, as mom ‘n pops keep trying to compete with more powerful, if less empathetic and community-involved, rivals, it will take more and more “commission salesmen with no experience necessary” just to keep them afloat, because income streams must open up to allow the professional funeral directors sufficient reason to keep up their training, service, and commitment to their chosen industry. We’ve all seen reports of doctors opting out of daily practice because the grind of dealing with HMOs and legal beagles constantly looking for lawsuit fodder made practicing medicine and dealing with patients no longer worth it. If we keep making things so much tougher for independent funeral and cemetery owners and professionals, we are going to have to deal with whatever corporate schoolyard bullies sweep in and beat up every little, ethical guy on the playground. It takes a special breed to decide on a career in the death care industry. It’s not beneficial to either those professionals or the public requiring our services to force into play a marketplace where only the most skilled corporate money-maker, not the most family-friendly service providers, can survive. David J. Fone

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