In 1963 British-American activist Jessica Mittford published a book titled “The American Way of Death.” It was a harsh criticism of the American funeral industry. Mittford’s scathing attack on the business of death called into question what she considered to be unscrupulous business practices on the part of funeral directors who took advantage of grieving families. The book became a national bestseller, led to congressional hearings on the funeral industry, and inspired the 1965 Tony Richardson film The Loved One.
Fast forward half a century and it appears that has changed in the funeral business. Had Mittford not been cremated and her ashes spread at sea, she would likely be turning over in her grave at the current state of the industry.
One can not necessarily say the business is booming. There is not really room for growth in an industry where everyone eventually becomes a customer—you can’t look for new customers. But trends in society are making funeral directors, at least in the United States, take a look at where they can increase profit. Downward pressure on the funeral industry is driving this trend.
As the United States becomes more secular, many are opting out of traditional funerals complete with expensive casket, embalming process, and multi-day viewings and services. Instead, many are choosing simple cremation and families are hosting private ceremonies to spread the ashes of recently passed loved-ones. Recent statistics show that in 2011, 42 percent of those who died were cremated. That is up from below 10 percent in 1980.
Those are significant numbers, and when one takes into consideration that cremation is remarkably less expensive, it is easy to see how this trend is affecting the bottom line of mortuaries. Cremation is an option that usually costs less than $2,500, often times around half that. Compare that to the average cost of a funeral in 2009, which hits around $6,560 (many nowadays cost over $10,000), and the savings to the funeral shopper is obvious. The loss in profit to the funeral director is obvious too.
A note: Jessica Mittford died in 1996. The average cost of a funeral then was around $5000. Mittford’s wishes were to be cremated and her ashes spread at sea. As mentioned above, her family honored her wishes. Total cost for Mittford’s services: $533.31.
In an attempt to recover some of these lost profits, funeral directors often try to up-sell services. For example, many funeral homes offer to create video slideshows to celebrate the deceased’s life. Sometimes these are included in the services as value-added products to distinguish one mortuary’s service from others. But sometimes, the less scrupulous mortuary will sell the slideshow as an additional service. Offered to a family stricken by grief, most are assured that the customer will agree to see the pictures of Grandma playing on screens in the funeral parlor – at an added cost, of course.
The most notorious up-sell of the industry, though, is the coffin. Think about what a coffin is for a moment. It is merely a box to hold the remains of a deceased loved-one. When viewed in its simplest terms it doesn’t seem reasonable to spend over $1,000 for a casket. Yet, that is often what most funeral homes will attempt to get you to do.
An organization created to help inform consumers about the industry and some of these practices is the Funeral Consumers Alliance. On a page buried deep in their website is the title “Caskets: Everything the Mortician Won’t Tell You and Some Better Places to Shop.” That page lays out just how ugly the coffin buying process can be.
It tells the story of one shopper who asked the mortician to see the sub $2,000 caskets that were on display for her in the show room. She reported, “They led us to a hall on the way to the boiler room.” Other stories tell of a woman being taken to a basement showroom full of cobwebs to see the less expensive coffins and another who asked to see more affordable offerings and was subjected to the unthinkable response, “Oh . . . you want the welfare casket.”
Morticians use such tactics to capitalize on the grief of families and coax them to buy a more expensive product. The real indignity, though, is that the more expensive caskets don’t give you anything of value for the extra money. The rubber gasket that provides the seal to keep water from seeping into the casket costs the industry $8, but the up-charge to the consumer can be as high as $800.
It gets worse. A tightly-sealed casket may protect the remains from elements seeping in, but it also creates a non-breathable box that doesn’t allow for the natural dehydration and decomposition of a body. Instead the body is tightly sealed in a hot, damp box that creates an environment far less “appealing” than natural decomposition. It is a graphic and sensitive topic but rest assured that such tightly sealed caskets are not creating an antiseptic eternal resting place for Granny, although that is what many in the industry will have you believe.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance offers advice to those who want to shop somewhere besides the funeral home for the casket. And that is a choice many are making these days. The FCA’s website provides shopping tips for affordable caskets. But such moves by the consumer have prompted mortuaries to take action.
Many states protect funeral directors from such bargain shopping by making it illegal for anyone other than a mortuary to sell a casket. But those laws are being challenged these days as the trend for cheaper, simpler funerals continues to spread.
The U.S. Supreme Court just refused to hear a case out of Louisiana, and by doing so made it legal for a group of Benedictine monks to continue to manufacture and sell simple wooden caskets. Similarly, a case in South Carolina was also dropped against a farrier who was building $300 caskets for families who wanted to bury loved ones on farm property. But that was after the Board of Funeral Service in the state issued him a cease and desist letter telling him to stop.
It is big business, and as it contracts situations like those mentioned above are likely to continue to appear. Indeed the industry is so big that the Federal Trade Commission has recently had to mediate the merger of two of the biggest players in the business. The combination of Service Corporation International and Stewart Enterprises has raised the eyebrows of some and many consumer advocates don’t believe that the merger will mean anything good for the end user.
The possibilities for metaphors and puns are nearly endless when it comes to talking about the death of the funeral industry. Perhaps it’s inaccurate to say it is dying. Everybody dies, and as long as that is true, there will always be a business that helps our survivors deal with our remains. But that business is going through a shake-up as people opt for more affordable services and processes.
It has certainly changed a lot since the days of Jessica Mittford. But as the profits of funeral businesses are further squeezed, it seems that the industry is doubling down on some its more unsavory tactics. In a way that is bad news for consumers who feel compelled by tradition to purchase $10,000 worth of services to bury Mom or Dad. But the cheaper alternatives of cremation and non-traditional services offer more flexibility and a huge cost savings, and that seems to be where people are headed. It is estimated that the cremation rate will be over 50 percent by 2025.