Features

Burying pricey funerals

National | Alternatives to traditional funeral homes are sprouting up around the continent

Issue: "Is McCain able?," Aug. 21, 1999

In Tempe, Arizona, in a dingy strip mall tucked behind a 7-11, is a small Roman Catholic bookstore called The Good Shepherd. On the walls are laminated paintings of Christ and Mary, rosary beads, shelves with figurines, and a few lonely bookracks containing Spanish devotionals. At a table against the back wall sits Father Henry Wasielewski in a green golf shirt and sandals. The retired priest has crusaded for 20 years against what he calls "fraudulent" funeral practices. He is also the founder of the new Good Shepherd Funeral Program, a tiny group of volunteers taking on the multi-billion-dollar funeral industry. Mr. Wasielewski is 70, short, and a bit paunchy, but he talks tough. "We're going to take care of funerals all over the state," he boasts, his clear blue eyes flashing. "We've taken bodies away from eight mortuaries already, in just our first three weeks, and done 11 funerals." The program aims to help people get a "fair-priced" funeral. The bookstore sells caskets on the side at $200 over wholesale. A local mortuary provides low-cost embalming. Services can be held in local churches instead of funeral chapels. But if the family wants another mortuary to handle the body or the memorial, a Good Shepherd volunteer will go with them to the undertaker to help negotiate. "When a family member dies, they don't need a stable person to arrange the funeral, because that person won't know anything, either," says Mr. Wasielewski, digging in a box for a color brochure. "They need a price list." The brochure has thumbnail photos of 14 caskets, including a copper-colored, 20-gauge steel model. Its wholesale price is $325; Good Shepherd's price is $525. Most mortuaries charge between $895 and $1,995 for similar caskets. Wholesale coffin prices are supposed to be closely guarded secrets; Mr. Wasielewski publishes them on the Internet. A Good Shepherd funeral can be had for less than $1,400, while an average U.S. funeral costs around $5,000-and with casket, grave, headstone, and hearse, it can easily exceed $8,000. Big mark-ups on caskets are also not Mr. Wasielewski's only complaint. He describes manipulative sales tactics designed to wring the last dollar out of bereaved families (who are unlikely to go coffin shopping in their hour of grief), exorbitant fees for services never requested (like $1,400 for staging a viewing of cremated remains), cheap cardboard cremation caskets billed at $300, and clergymen who accept "donations" in exchange for endorsements from the pulpit. Mr. Wasielewski gets especially irate about "sealer caskets." These units, for which funeral parlors charge hundreds of dollars more than a standard coffin, have a rubber ring around the rim and a locking mechanism to seal the lid. Customers are told that this "keeps the bugs from crawling all over Mom's face," he says. Instead, the caskets allow anaerobic bacteria (which require no oxygen) to flourish and quickly putrefy the corpse's soft tissue. The bacteria also produce methane which, in some cases, has blown leaks in caskets, oozing brown goo onto the mausoleum floor. Some casket manufacturers have developed "burpers," or sealers that allow the gas to escape. Big funeral homes say such allegations are misplaced. Terry Hemeyer, spokesman for Service Corporation International (SCI), the world's largest funeral services company, says unscrupulous practices are bad for business. He claims that problems are rare, but "if there is a problem, we immediately address it. We can't afford to have things go wrong." Mr. Hemeyer adds that prices are related to the level of service. Jessica Mitford first exposed funeral industry practices in her biting 1963 bestseller, The American Way of Death. An updated version was published last year. She pointed out that-contrary to some undertakers' assertions-embalming (under ordinary circumstances), concrete "vaults" to keep graves from collapsing, and caskets for bodies being cremated are not required by law. Any such "regulations" come from the undertakers themselves. Ms. Mitford also charged that the industry promotes the notion that the more expensive the funeral, the more important the deceased and the less guilty the family will feel about ignoring Aunt Edna when she was alive. A $4,000 casket becomes "the first dose of grief therapy" on the presumption that the bereaved is "a bundle of guilt feelings, a snob, and a status seeker." Despite a barrage of newspaper and television stories that appeared just after Ms. Mitford's first edition and an occasional flurry since, only a few years ago prospects for the funeral industry looked good. The baby boomers were approaching late middle age and the average cost of funerals was rising. Smelling money, funeral service chains began snatching up independent, family-owned operations all over the country. But cracks in the death-care establishment are appearing, at least in the major corporations (see sidebar), leaving just enough room for alternatives to sprout. Discount casket stores have sprung up in strip malls and warehouses across the country, mainly in metropolitan areas. (They're hampered, though, by the misconception that it is illegal to bring a casket purchased elsewhere to a funeral home.) Last spring, Faye Ray, owner of Direct to the Public Casket and Urn Gallery in Clearwater, Fla., cut a deal with nearby Grace Baptist Church. Pastor Ken Jankowski conducts the services at Grace; Ms. Ray directs customers to a low-cost mortician for embalming and cosmetics; and the funeral director is eliminated. "It's a good idea," says Mr. Jankowski. "I'm surprised nobody thought of it sooner, but it's a little early to tell how it will work out." He intends to present the gospel in his services, and if that is not possible, "I won't be that interested," he says. Another option is the low-cost, no-frills funeral home. At the Botimer Funeral Home in a poor neighborhood near downtown Phoenix, for example, the casket display is backwards. The plywood box covered in felt for $195, the basic baby blue metal casket for $290, the bronze, cube-shaped bronze-plated urn for $95-all these are in the front room next to the bare-bones chapel with the painted brick walls, where customers will see them first. If you want to see the brass-and-oak-trimmed "White Rose" casket for $1,295 (over $2,500 at some other mortuaries) you have to ask, and Jim Botimer leads you outside, across the parking lot, into a shed-like building. There is no hidden lighting, no soothing music. Complete funerals (including casket, embalming, brief service, burial) start at $1,395. "The joke's on them," he says of corporate parlors in the area that he claims are trying to drive him under with predatory pricing. "I've lived on wieners and beans all my life." The Birchwood Funeral Chapel in Steinbach, Manitoba, about 60 miles north of the Minnesota border, looks and operates much like a traditional funeral home but is actually a member-owned co-op. In one year over 2,200 residents of the sleepy, mostly Mennonite little community shelled out $200 each to become a member and more sign up every week. Funeral director Dave Citulsky explains that members get 15 percent off the standard prices and 200 co-op shares, which should start paying dividends in the next year or so. "All our profits will go back to our members," says Mr. Citulsky, who figures that this year Birchwood will do half the funerals in Steinbach. Birchwood also forced its competitor to cut prices by $1,500 to $3,000. Some individuals are even willing to bury their own dead, says Lisa Carlson, author of the 1987 book, Caring for Your Own Dead. She came out last year with Caring for the Dead, an updated, state-by-state guide to funeral law on death certificates as well as burial and body transportation licensing requirements. Ms. Carlson is the executive director of the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America, an association of dozens of local consumer watchdog groups across the country that provide price surveys and advice. Bury your own dead? That seems too much like 19th-century practice to many Americans and Canadians who are about to enter the 21st. But has more than a question-Who takes care of the body?-changed over the past century? Did the old pine box convey a "dust to dust" understanding, with the emphasis placed on souls that never die? Do fancy coffins and sealer caskets honor the dead, or are they part of an attempt to convey a fiction about mortal life going on? But that may be reading too much into funeral customs. The new alternatives to funeral homes suggest that the public is becoming more price conscious, but it's too soon to say whether public attitudes toward funerals are shifting enough for programs like Good Shepherd to become commonplace.

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Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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