1. Cutting Death Costs: The Church’s Role


This is a paper that I wrote in 1996 for a course I took on Sin, Guilt, Suffering and Death taught by Dr. Robert Priest, who was at Columbia International University at the time. Some of the data is out of date I am sure and as expected, I am sure that the industry has made major changes.

Cutting Death Costs: The Church’s Role

INTRODUCTION

I suspect few pastors are consulted when people in our churches buy a home or a car. That is not usually considered to be our area of expertise. But most of our parishioners do look to us for help when they are required to make the third most costly purchase for their family: the funeral[i]. Our responses are varied.

Some of us are passive like one pastor I talked to recently, “I have been a pastor for 25 years and I never go with the family when they make funeral arrangements. That would be inappropriate.” So, we abdicate our responsibility to others. Do we really believe that the funeral director who is selling incredibly overpriced products and services will be objective in helping his customers (our parishioners) to make the right decision?[ii] The funeral director is a salesman selling a product just like the car salesman or realtor. What are they not telling us?

Other pastors are more actively involved with people as they make decisions about funerals but find themselves as helpless as their members. These pastors accompany the bereaved to the funeral home but find themselves shaking their head that it costs more money to bury someone than to give birth.[iii] These pastors are in the casket room with the family when a coffin is chosen but lack information to help the family from making guilt driven and pride laden decisions to purchase an overpriced box that will not prevent the inevitable decay any better than the others. How can they better be prepared?

Third, there are a few savy pastors who soon after the death of a loved one, will gently inform the grieving family about decisions that will soon need to be made. He will explain to them how they can save thousands of dollars in funeral costs. He (or his trained representative) is there with the family suggesting lower cost alternatives whenever possible. He informs the family what is required by law and empowers the family to avoid uneccessary and undesired expenses when possible. Other options than the traditional funeral service are presented. In all his discussions, it is obvious that there is the committment by the pastor and the church to be the real directors of the funeral. What have they learned that others need to know?

There is a fourth group of pastors (I hope they are small in number) that are semi-employees of a funeral home. They are called upon to do funerals for the “unchurched” for which they receive an honorarium. They not only fail to inform people about unfair prices and practices, they are quick to give the name of certain establishments for which they receive compensation for referrals. They seem to be blind to questionable practices and fail to speak up when outrageous amounts of money are spent on the funeral. They have become part of the problem and invite the following comment, “The clergy are the GREATEST HELP TO MORTICIANS RIPOFF of their congregations by cooperating with morticians and not warning their people of the ripoff”.[iv] How should they change?

Should there not be a fifth group of pastors and churches who prepare their people ahead of time for the many decisions that must be made when the darkness of death descends? They have provided theological teaching upon the afterlife, the inevitable decay of the body but also of the hope of the resurrection for all who are “in Christ”. They have also encouraged people to be prepared by providing workbooks[v], holding workshops and teaching Sunday Schools in which people can write down their choices and make prepation in the case their estate should be settled in a sudden death. During these times, information is provided about the funeral industry and the cost of dying. Frank conversations are held during which issues such as cremation, pre-need buying and even one’s own funeral services are discussed. Couples are encouraged (as painful as it is) to write down preliminary choices regarding the type and nature of the funeral service, merchandise that should be bought and location of burial. Needless to say, these pastors would, like the third pastor, be committed to helping the family at the funeral home and directing the funeral in the time of a death. What needs to be done to provide this kind of care?

THE PROBLEM STATED

If it is true that 70% of adults are without a will[vi], then it is to be expected that many more people have not thought through what they would like to happen at their own funeral. Even if everyone in the family is aware that death is near for an individual, the funeral is often NOT to be discussed. Avoidance of the topic of the funeral somehow gives hope that things are NOT nearly as bad as they seem. Thus, when death occurs, few people are prepared for the decisions that must be made in a very short period of time. It is hoped that this article helps the pastor to give care in the financial decisions people must make at the time of the death of a loved one.[vii]

DECISIONS THAT NEED TO BE MADE

A. Choosing the Right Funeral Home

Most people at the time of a death in the family go to the funeral home which is nearest to them or with which they (or a friend) have had a prior relationship. Even if they are shocked at the price for a funeral, very few bother to shop around.[viii] If they are sitting down talking with a funeral director, it is likely that the body of the deceased has already been picked up by that establishment.[ix] It is still possible to move the body to another funeral home even at this point.[x] Since thousands of dollars may be saved by the choice of funeral home, people need to be guided to shop around, directed to lower cost funeral homes and to even transfer the body of a loved one if necessary.

A 1984 law called the “Funeral Rule” has made it possible to get information about the costs of funeral homes over the phone and in writing.[xi] Each individual funeral home has a prepared “Price List” which can be examined and used for comparison purposes. Comparisons between funeral homes are rarely done because of the hassle involved but even a cursory comparison can reveal huge differences in every category from the purchase of the casket to the trip to the cemetary in the limousine. There are three basic charges on a funeral home’s bill that must be compared: Merchandise Selected, Professional Services and Other Services.

B. Merchandise Selected

Upon arrival at the funeral home, after some preliminary information is obtained about the deceased and his family, funeral costs are discussed. Since the Merchandise Selected (primarily the cost of the casket and vault) is the most expensive portion of the funeral, this is the last item to be discussed with the grieving family. Fortunately, with a little knowledge and planning, it is possible to keep down the high cost of the casket and vault. Burial containers (normally caskets), burial vaults, cremation urns and cemetary markers have prices that vary dramatically between funeral homes in a city.

1. Casket

The choice of the casket is the single most costly item in a funeral. Caskets are normally made of wood or metal. Cloth covered particle wood caskets are the cheapest. However, these will never be displayed. If you ask to look at one, you will likely be made to wait, be made to feel that you are making a choice that is normally made by those in a lower economic bracket and find that the product itself looks cheap. Wooden caskets vary in price from cheaper pine caskets to expensive hardwood (mahogany, maple, cherry) caskets. Metal caskets are pricier beginng with the standard 20 gauge steel casket to more bronze and copper caskets.[xii]

It is important to note that the same identical caskets can vary enormously from one funeral home to the next.[xiii] For example, the price of a “modest” steel casket (20 gauge steel, one color) at various funeral homes in Houston varied from $895 to $5892 based upon a survey done in 1996.[xiv] That represents a mark-up between $600 and $5600 since the wholesale cost of the casket is only $285.[xv] Funeral homes discourage the purchasing of lower priced caskets by displaying unattractive , even “uglified” models.[xvi]

But there are businesses which will sell you a casket for only $200 over the wholesale cost.[xvii] Funeral Homes are required by law to accept other caskets and are not allowed to charge a handling fee for caskets purchased outside their establishment.[xviii] A person can even make a casket and bring it into the funeral home to be used. Caskets can be personalized. Even if a less expensive casket is purchased, it can be decorated on the inside and outside with your own treasures (homemade quilts, pictures, other special objects). Flags covering the caskets for veterans and floral sprays are two other easy ways to cover up what is perceived to be a casket of lower value.[xix]

High pressure sales talks are usually not employed when families move into the “selection” or “casket” room to pick out the coffin. However, the goal of most funeral home directors is to encourage the family to make an above average purchase of merchandise. Most people need help at this point. Consumers Research say that there is one firm rule in making funeral arrangements: “Never go by yourself to a funeral home to decide on services you will be purchasing. Alone you are too vulnerable to making purchases based on grief or guilt.”[xx] After all, this is a business and higher priced items mean more profit for the funeral home. It should be noted that there is a strategy in the layout of merchandise in the selection room just like there is in grocery stores (although they would like us to think, “more tastefully done”).[xxi] With the knowledge of the wholesale prices of coffins[xxii] and having alternative sources for the casket purchase, some funeral homes will even reduce their price in order to keep a customer and guarantee a sale.

One of the key selling points of coffins is their “durability” and ability to keep out the elements with various types of neoprene seals. However, seals are of dubious value.[xxiii] The Funeral Rule prohibits funeral homes from promising that the body will be indefinitely preserved by the container chosen. Without showing a disrespect for the deceased, people may need to be gently reminded that the decay of the body is not something to be feared and is even taught by the Bible.[xxiv] The hope of the Christian is in the promised resurrection of the body.[xxv] It is to be noted that it is only the casket manufacturer that provides a warranty on the life of a casket, not the funeral home.[xxvi] Consumers Digest notes that the casket “is one consumer category where the quality of the product is irrelevant given its nondurable nature.”[xxvii]

2. Caskets and Cremation

I wish that it did not have to be said that if cremation is chosen, there is no need for a casket. However, this is not always stated by funeral directors who stand to make a nice profit whether a casket is buried or burned up. Simple cardboard (or pressed wood) cremation containers (called alternative containers) should be purchased for around $100, however $500 on up is not uncommon. If a traditional viewing and service is desired before cremation, there are even rental caskets available at low cost.[xxviii]

3. Vaults

Vaults or grave liners are increasingly high cost items and are also marketed in the selection room of the funeral home. They are also sold by cemetaries.[xxix] Vaults are not required by law but are required by many perpetual care cemetaries and veteran cemetaries.[xxx] Their cost varies with the materials used, concrete being the cheapest. I have not yet found a place where these can be purchased like caskets at slightly over wholesale price but substantial savings can be gained by being selective about the type of vault and where it is purchased. Again, as in the case of coffins, funeral homes are not allowed to guarantee that their vaults will keep water and soil forever off of the one that is about to be buried but their marketing speeches often imply indefinite protection from exposure to the elements.[xxxi] Again, the cost of the vault may be avoided if the cemetary does not require it. If required, go with the cheapest possible alternative since this will never be seen by the family.

B. Professional Services

1. Basic Services

There may be some outrageous costs involved here which are harder to avoid except by choosing a funeral home with lower charges. Even if the price of the caskets are lower, the cost of the funeral home’s services should be carefully examined. Besides the charge for embalming (discussed below), there is a charge on most funeral invoices for “Basic Services of Funeral Director and Staff”. This charge can run from $800 to more than $2000. This does not include embalming, clothing of the body, transportation of the body or the funeral service itself. The Basic Services charge includes the funeral home’s overhead, 24 hour security of the body, the initial planning conference and service planning and various clerical responsibilities. The basic service charge is non-declinable and will be charged even in the case of a cremation. Other related but usually separate expenses are for the preparation of the body: washing of the body, dressing of the body, beautician and cosmetology services. These all work together with embalming to give the body a healthy and even lifelike appearance.

2. Embalming

Many people are unaware that embalming is not required by any state or federal law. The funeral home is required by law to inform people that embalming is a declinable expense. Embalming may be required when there is a public viewing but this is a policy established by the funeral home. It is worth noting that a private viewing of the body by the family can be arranged by the funeral home if requested even if embalming is not done. Since the body will be refrigerated if no embalming is done beyond a 24 hour period, daily costs for refrigeration need to be compared against that of embalming.[xxxii] If the person dies at the hospital and embalming is not desired, the body may be kept in the hospital’s refrigeration unit until the time of the funeral.

Other than being a “necessary” procedure for a body that is to be viewed, present day embalming is a rather gruesome procedure that interferes with the body’s natural decay.[xxxiii] Embalming’s supposed purpose is to “help the family maintain the family’s memories of the deceased.” It is to help the family know that “death came and was accepted peacefully”.The goal of the funeral director is to “help the bereaved meet death and come away with a positive impression of this very disturbing event.”[xxxiv] However, not all accept death peacefully. In fact the Bible talks of a judgment to be faced at death (Heb 9:27). Death entered the world as a terrible consequence of sin but will one day be defeated because of the work of Christ (Gen 3:19; 1 Cor 15:26, 51-54; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 2:14; Rev 1:18; 21:4). Only for those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ can death be a positive experience since to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord (Phil 1:21-24; 2 Cor 5:1-6).

3. Other Services

Visitation
Visitation is the formal viewing of the body by family and friends, normally done in the evenings for 2-3 hours. Extended or multiple visitation times require additional charges.

Storage
Most funeral home fees are planned with the body being in storage for 3 days. Should the funeral need to be delayed for a longer time, additional charges may be incurred.

Funeral Services

Charges may be made for the use of the funeral home’s chapel and an additional charge for the graveside service.

Transporation of the Body
This is one of those outrageous charges. When my uncle died recently in another city, my aunt was charged $690 to transport the body by van to the town where he was to be buried—a charge of $1.50 per mile! Shipping the body by air freight is also more expensive than normal airfreight, almost the equivalent of economy class tickets.[xxxv] It is important to note that any time the body is moved, additional transportation charges will be added.

4. Other Cash Charges
Death certificates, flowers, obituaries, police escorts and the clergy fee are a few of these additional charges. The normal stated practice is to pass on the actual cost of these items to the family. The obituary can be written by the family or will be done by the funeral home based upon information obtained. It is worth insisting that the funeral home allow the family to approve the text of an obituary before it is sent to the newspaper. A notice of “Please Omit Flowers” is a helpful way to redirect large amounts of money to the family’s charity.[xxxvi]

C. Cemetary Costs

Cemetary costs make up another large portion of funeral costs, up to 35% depending upon what costs are included.[xxxvii] 90% of cemetary lots are sold on a pre-need basis.[xxxviii] Like other elements of the funeral, more expensive lots are marketed since more profit can be achieved. Less expensive lots may have no trees, be in low lying areas and have no footpaths. Mausoleums are promoted by cemetaries as a better cost alternative to the traditional grave. It is no wonder since it is estmated that 10,000 burials can be made per acre when mausoleums are used versus 1000 burials per acre for the traditional 3 x 9 foot burial plot.[xxxix]

THE QUESTION OF CREMATION

The traditional funeral (with a casket, embalming, viewing and funeral service) was still the choice of approximately 80% of people in 1994.[xl] This compares with 3.56% in 1960 and is estimated to rise to 32.5% by 2010.[xli] However, cremation is not the desired method of burial for most funeral directors. “Helping the family face death through the practice of embalming and preparing the dead for viewing is the main task of a funeral director.”[xlii] Cremation prevents the sale of much merchandise and the viewing of the body unless it is preceded by the traditional service. The question remains whether or not viewing is needed as part of the grieiving process. A booklet on “Cremation Facts” (which had no publication data) which I obtained from one “higher end” funeral home appeared to be intentionally designed to discourage any customer from choosing cremation by having a bland design and graphically describing what happens to the body during cremation.

A choice of cremation does not automatically guarantee a lower cost. Even a direct cremation (the body is picked up and taken directly to the crematorium) can cost several thousand dollars. Fees to look out for are the basic service charge of the funeral home, transportaion costs, crematorium fees and alternative burial container costs.

Some funeral homes may try to sell a casket for the cremation and even try to get you to bury the ashes into a cemetary lot as well as sell expensive urns. However an alternative cremation container can be purchased inexpensively and with some shopping a direct cremation can be found for under $1000.[xliii] Some say that cremations can save 40% over the cost of traditional funeral services[xliv] but the above comments show that this is not necessarily the case. It has been said that whereas the choice of a traditonal funeral service is usually because of the “family’s wishes”, the choice of cremation is often the preference of the deceased.[xlv] However, some choose a traditional funeral service over an individual’s preference for cremation in order not to be “denied the consolation of a viewing”.[xlvi] Perhaps the church needs to rethink the traditional views on cremation.

OTHER ALTERNATIVES

Organ and tissue donations are a related area that pastors should consider in counselling members of their church. If donation is chosen, the body is still available shortly after death for a traditional funeral service with viewing.[xlvii] Should the body be donated to a medical school for research, there will be no funeral costs involved. Normally, the bodies donated to medical schools will be cremated and the ashes returned to the family if desired. Local medical schools should be contacted concerning their donar programs.

PURCHASING A PRE-NEED PLAN OR NOT?

Some people try to be prepared for a death in the family by purchasing a pre-need plan.

To have a pre-need plan is one of the “most loving things you can do”, stated a funeral director at a seminar I attended recently.[xlviii] The idea here is to reduce the stresses of the funeral by making decisions ahead of time about the type of funeral services, merchandise and place of buial one desires. Funeral homes are very agressive in pursuing people to purchase pre-need plans. It guarantees your business and provides them with money in advance to use for their own investments. This is big business today since about $20 billion dollars is currently invested in preneed funeral and cemetary plans. The estimated 1 million new contracts made each year is expected to rise to 4 million pre-need contracts signed annually.[xlix] But as Consumers Digest points out, there is “no way to tell how much of it is invested safely — or protected at all.”[l] The organization in which a person has invested his money may not even be in existence at the time of death.

With a preneed plan, people may NOT have the option should they move to change their mind about what they want unless they are willing to spend more money. SCI, one of the largest corporations in the business, will alllow you to transfer within their network of funeral homes. There is not even a guarantee that your choices will be available when the inevitable death occurs. When merchandise (for example, the coffin) that is selected as part of a pre-need plan is out of stock (my experience at a recent funeral), the funeral director once again has the opportunity to try to get the person to purchase a higher cost item. The Interfaith Funeral Information Committee (IFIC) estimates that people spend from two to five times more” when funerals are bought on a preneed basis.[li] Many people suggest that money be invested for funeral expenses or be used to purchase an additional insurance policy. See the September 1, 1995 issue of Consumers Digest for other reasons why a preneed plan should not be purchased.

The Federal Trade Commission[lii] suggests that the following questions be answered before signing a pre-need arrangement:

1. What happens to the money you have pre-paid?

2. What happens to the interest income on the money that is pre-paid?

3. Are you protected if the funeral home goes out of business?

4. Can you cancel the contract?

5. Can the contract be transferred?

SHOULD THE CHURCH BE INVOLVED?

The goal of this paper has been to provide evidence that argues persuasively for the pastor’s involvement in reducing many of the expenses involved in funerals. Television stations and newspapers have been very active in exposing many of the abuses of the funeral industry. It is time for the church once again to take up her role. Although the role of the pastor has been reduced in today’s society, many people still expect the pastor to be of support to them at the time of death.

Some may argue that it is intrusive for the pastor to take an active role in funeral planning beyond the actual funeral service. But if the church is not involved, someone will step in and take an active role. Hyland and Morse note that the funeral director’s role has evolved in the last 50 years such that he now performs many of the functions that people expected to get from the church (such as providing counsel, comfort and counsel at the time of death). They say that one of the reasons is the general decline in the importance of religion in the dominant American culture.[liii] However James Connally says, “The funeral is not the celebration of a dead body. It is the celebration of this life. The church, not the funeral director, knows best how to do this.”[liv] The clergy, along with family and friends, needs to be involved at the time of death both to give comfort and hope but also to help those who are emotionally vulnerable to overspending.

The church has historically taken one of the most active roles in many aspects of societal reform. We are to care for the widow and orphan (Ex 22:22-23; Deut 10:18), the helpless, the oppressed and the poor(Ps 10:12; Zech 7:10; Ezek 22:12,19; Mtt 9:36). We are to be active in helping people not to be deceived (Levit 19:11; Prov 24:28; Rom 16:18; Col 2:4). By helping reduce death costs and by preparing people for decisions that need to be made at the time of the death of a loved one, we will have shown mercy to the body of Christ and been His good stewards. (Mtt 10:42; 25:35-40; Acts 4:32-37) Leo J. Shapiro said, in reflecting on the increasing individuation of society, said, “One begins to wonder, how is it – why shouldn’t the person simply disappear? And increasingly, I would expect the funerals to move in that direction. It is now acceptable to go quietly in the night.”[lv] The church must never allow this to happen since Psalms 116:15 says, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” (NIV) People do not need to fear death nor the decay of the body since there is an assurance of resurrection in Christ (1 Cor 15:26; 2 Tim 1:10; Heb 2:14.

Death is not the End

Richard Gill suggests that today’s view on death is similar to the earlier Puritan world view in which “physical death meant impermanence and decay” and the “immortality of the soul as being what was “truly important.”[lvi] During that time, there was no attempt to preserve the body and grave markers were not even used. However, he suggests that the movement today to reduce funeral costs and choose cremation is because Americans have a myopic view of the world. He writes, “Apparently, the only thing that matters is what happens in this world now. The future after we are gone is a blank. Forget about it. Live your life for yourself. All the rest is basically incomprehensible.”[lvii] As pastors, we must fight against this view as well. The throes of death should neither be ignored nor should it be viewed as the end to existence which is the basic tenet of New Age teaching and a product of our American secular life as Gill says. The Christian has a hope of resurrection. Death is not to be feared. It is not the end.[lviii]

WHAT TO DO

A. Prepare Yourself Personally

1. Study

You must study and be aware of funeral costs in your area. You should request a price list from the funeral homes which your members normally use and compare the costs. Find out alternative suppliers of caskets. Find out who offers the lowest prices on caskets, funeral services, cremation services and cemetary lots. The website of IFIC is a treasure trove of information and should be consulted.

Prepare information to give to people when they ask you. Have a check list to give to people which lists the various decisions people will need to make and what documents are needed. Aquire a supply of free brochures from AARP and the Federal Trade Commission that help people prepare for death and funeral costs. Become an expert yourself and train others to do so as well in case of a death in your absence.

2. Build Relationships

Get to know some funeral directors and talk about the issues. Be aware of their self-interest. Ask what kind of price breaks they are willing to give?

3. Committment

Make a committment that the church, not the funeral industry and funeral directors, will be responsible to direct the funeral of your members. Build and train a group of people in the church who can provide expertise in finding lower costs. Make the church available for the public viewing. Insist that the service be held in the church not the funeral home. Explain that it is the church who will be the director of the funeral.[lix] Perhaps the the idea of a church cemetary should be reconsidered for some of us.

4. Network

Share the information you learn with other churches and pastors. Network with other pastors about this topic. Plan a coordinated response to the high cost of funerals in your area. Perhaps a boycott is appropriate of certain unethical funeral homes. Sponsor a seminar such as the one we had in Houston on the topic of Funeral Planning and invite various experts.

5. Reporting Unethical Practices

As you discover unethical practices by funeral homes such as misleading, pressuring or deceiving people, keep documentation of these facts and report them to the Federal Trade Commission, Better Business Bureau, Attorney General’s Office, State Funeral Board and Newspaper/TV consumer advocates. Report unethical practices of cemetaries to the State Real Estate Department and violations of Pre-Pay Plans to the State Insurance Dept.

B. Prepare Your People

1. Before the Death Ever Occurs

Sunday school classes should discuss periodically issues related to death and dying. Estate planning seminars offered for the church family and the larger community would be an excellent place to communicate about how funeral costs could be reduced. All people in your church should be informed that the pastor and his trained team have information that is available to them and which can help them in the time of a death in the family. Help people plan without investing their money in pre-pay plans.

2. At the Time Death

Inform people about the death benefits available to them such as social security benefits or veteran benefits. Have a list of phone numbers to give to them. Other groups may provide death benefits such as lodges, clubs, unions, retirement plans, employers. Give them a list of funeral homes available that will provide excellent care with reasonable cost. Let the family know what paperwork is required before going to the funeral home and discuss some types of decisions that will need tobe made. Make sure the family has a trained person to go with them to the funeral home at the time of death. Help them think through the alternatives and make the church available as much as is needed. The lowest cost funeral home may be some distance from the church which may necessitate holding the viewing as well as the service itself at the church.

CONCLUSION

Connally is right, a funeral is the time to celebrate a life, not a dead body and thus it is the church that best knows how to do this. Yet the pastor will continue to only have a token presence if we are not willing to take an active role in helping reduce funeral costs. When Mitford wrote in 1963, she said that the “funeral industry lives in a state of perpetual excaberation and alarm over this question of relations with the clergy.”[lx] Today, by our silence and even support of the high priced funeral industry we have become part of the problem. It is time for a change and the church must take the lead. We must trust the Lord for the extra time, energy and wisdom required to make an impact on funeral costs in our society.


[i] American Demographics, July 1990, also mentioned in “Undertaking Profits” in the Feb. 17-23, 1994 issue of The Houston Press. Unlike a car or home, caskets are used only once!

[ii] Gregory Young says, “If those who are purchasing the funeral do not know what questions to ask–if they neither understand the process nor know the alternatives–they are sitting ducks.” The High Cost of Dying (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1994), 25.

[iii] According to the July 1990 issue of American Demographics, the average funeral costs $1000 more than the average birth. However their figure of $3786 for an average burial average in 1989 seem to much too low even back then so the disparity is likely much greater than $1000. The Houston Press in 1994 gave $6000 as the figure for which it was “easy to spend” for a funeral versus $4700 for the average non-cesarean birth estimate in that year. Feb. 17-23 issue.

[iv] “Funerals and Ripoffs”, a website of Interfaith Funeral Information Committee and Arizona Consumers Council, 1996

[v] Steve Sandifer has prepared such a workbook for his church called My Love List which is available for a couple of dollars from his church, Southwest Central Church of Christ, 4011 W. Bellfort, Houston, Texas 77025. AARP has also prepared a helpful booklet called Final Details: A Guide for Survivors When Death Occurs which can be obtained from AARP at 601 E. St. NW, Washington, DC 20049.

[vi] Comment made by Virgil Fry in an unpublished lecture “Theological and Psychological Issues Related to Funeral Planning” on Sept. 4, 1996.

[vii] Note the focus is specifically on the financial decisions surrounding the funeral and burial. Other help may need to be given about settling the estate and working through the grieving process but that is beyond my scope.

[viii] In a conversation recently with a someone in the industry, it was said that there are more and more shoppers at the time of a death need (“at need” to use their terminology).

[ix] Whether death is at home or in a hospital, one of the first things that will be asked concerns which funeral home will pick up the body.

[x] There is normally a charge to pick up a body from the place of death so this will have to be paid. Another charge will likely be made to transfer the body from one funeral home to another.

[xi] Funerals: A Consumer Guide. Published by the Federal Trade Commission in December 1994.

[xii] $25,000 from a price list from Memorial Oaks, an SCI firm. An estimated retail price of bronze and copper caskets from a Consumer Digests survey in September 1, 1995 reached up to $31,000 and $30,000 respectively. Even more revealing is that Consumer Digests gave the wholesale costs for these two high-end caskets as $3725 and $1625 respectively.

[xiii] Casket costs are based upon the general income level of the people living in the area around the funeral home. The Houston Press stated it like this, “When you die, what you pay depends on where you live.” February 17-23, 1994. This is true for caskets, embalming, transportation and other services. That is why the choice of a funeral home is critical.

[xiv] “Mortuary Price Guide for Houston”, August 1996, published by IFIC

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Jessica Mitford, The American Way of Death, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963), 250. She doesn’t use “uglified” in this reference but describes the concept. This term is not original with me but I can’t locate the source anymore.

[xvii] Consumer Casket USA is one of these. They have a toll-free number 1-800-611-8778 and will send a catalogue in addition to guaranteeing delivery within twenty-four hours for $150. Other local companies may also provide discounted caskets which may be found by looking in the yellow pages. Most casket manufacturers will only sell to licensed funeral directors. Discounters are often “blackballed” by the major casket manufacturers and must find alternative sourcing. See “Dancing on Graves” by Seth Lubove in the February 28, 1994 issue of Forbes.

[xviii] Funerals: A Consumer Guide, p. 4.

[xix] Guilt induced buying is a major problem or buying out of pride are two problems. In reality, no one will notice or remember what type of casket someone is buried in.

[xx] “How To Control Funeral Costs”, Consumers Research, Vol. 78, Issue 8, August 1995. They give a 414-868-3136 as the phone number to call to find out the nearest memorial society in your location.

[xxi] The American Way of Death, 24-27.

[xxii] These can be obtained by examining the IFIC website or writing to the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, Phoenix, Arizona and ask for their Mortuary Price Survey or Wholesale Casket Price list.

[xxiii] The IFIC document 12 and Jessica Mitford’s book give some grotesque examples of embalmed bodies actually suffering from being in a sealed casket and notes that many cemeteries actually remove seals to avoid “exploding” problems. The IFIC says people should, “Avoid harmful ‘protective sealer’ caskets” which are “highly promoted and costly”.

[xxiv] Job 21:23-36; Ps 49:9; 90:3; 104:29; Eccl 12:7; Is 14:11; Acts 13:36

[xxv] Dan 12:2; 1 Cor 15:51-54; 1 Thes 4:16, Phil 1:20; 3:21

[xxvi] Funerals: A consumer Guide, Caskets and Burial Facts and from the IFIC website. This information is also included in small writing on the bottom of funeral contracts.

[xxvii] Robert Ostertag, Consumers Digest, 1 May 1996.

[xxviii] The only purchase necessary is for a new cremation insert which is placed into the rental casket for around $200. How could a loved one be said to be honored by cremating them in a $10,000 casket?

[xxix] This is a competition that has been reduced in recent years by the larger corporations that own both funeral homes and cemeteries.

[xxx]Their purpose, along with markers at ground level, is to keep the ground from settling and to allow mowing to be done as quickly as possible by high powered mowers.

[xxxi] One price list that I have writes after each vault descriptions “resists the entrance of outside elements”. However what follows the listing for the cheapest concrete vault, DOES NOT RESIST THE ENTRANCE OF OUTSIDE ELEMENTS” (capitalization in their price list).

[xxxii] A brief checking of funeral homes in Houston revealed that embalming runs from $195 to $465 and refrigeration from $150 per day to $450 per day.

[xxxiii] Mitford describes the procedure in her book on pages 68-74.

[xxxiv] Liam Hyland and Janice M. Morse , “Orchestrating Comfort: The Role of Funeral Directors”, Death Studies 19 (1995) 463-4.

[xxxv] On November 11, 1996, you could ship 500 pounds of seafood on United Airlines from Houston to Seattle for only $125 but it would cost you $392 to ship the remains of a person (as long as the weight did not exceed 500 pounds).

[xxxvi] Mitford describes how both newspapers and funeral homes will resist this since funerals make up a large percentage of the floral industry’s business. Today, many larger funeral homes own a florist so that they can conveniently order flowers for the family and keep the business in the family. Cynthia L. Frozena argues for the value of flowers in an article in the American Journal of Nursing 94 (September 1994) 68-71.

[xxxvii] This is the estimate given by John Schneider of the Heights Funeral Home as mentioned in the Houston Chronicle on February 5, 1996. Likely his estimate includes purchasing the vault from the cemetery. Most funeral homes try to sell these during the selection of the casket. Since the majority of funeral homes are owned by giant corporations, which own a cemetery as well as the funeral home (and florist !) it is hard to separate the cost of the cemetery out from the funeral home.

[xxxviii] Figure from the American Cemetery Association, noted in Consumers Digest, September 1, 1995.

[xxxix] Houston Press, 17-24 Feb. 1994

[xl] American Demographics, May 1995.

[xli] Richard T. Gill, “Whatever Happened to the American Way of Death”, The Public Interest, 123 (Spring 1996) 107.

[xlii] Hyland and. Morse, 464.

[xliii] For example compare the prices of two funeral homes in Houston that I called. One said their price for direct cremation was $3410 whereas the other charged $595 (and this included pickup of the body, an alternative container, the crematory fee and a simple urn). Stephen Sandifer in his My Love List has provided a list of prices for direct cremation in the Houston area.

[xliv] American Demographics, July 1990. They also say that 24% of men were likely to request a cremation vs. 13% of women primarily because of differences in insurance policies. People over 50 were also more likely to choose a cremation than younger people (again related to lower incomes they suggest).

[xlv] American Demographics, July 1990.

[xlvi] Joanne Leonard, “Ashes to Ashes”, Saturday Evening Post, 266 March 1994.

[xlvii] The 24 hour communications center for Life Gift, an organ and tissue donor center can be contacted at 1-800-633-6562.

[xlviii] “Breaking the Silence, Funeral Planning and the Church”, A Seminar sponsored by The Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center on September 4, 1996.

[xlix] downloaded from the IFIC 1996 website

[l] Fraud in the Funeral Industry, Consumer Digest, Sept. 1, 1995

[li] ibid.

[lii] Caskets and Burial Vaults, Federal Trade Commission, August 1992.

[liii] Hyland and Morse, 454.

[liv] James Connolly, “Some Directors cast a pall on funerals”, National Catholic Reporter, 25 August 1995.

[lv] In a transcript of the program “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio, on March 26, 1994,

[lvi] Richard T. Gill, “Whatever Happened to the American Way of Death”, The Public Interest, 123 (Spring 1996) 110.

[lvii] Ibid., 117.

[lviii] Luke 23:43; Phil 1:20; 2 Pet 1:13,14 For a view on a non-religious funeral see Jane Vernon, “Its Your Funeral” New Statesman and Society, 6 (16 April 1993).

[lix] James Connolly describes the difficulty he had when he tried to keep funeral directors out of his church during the funeral in the August 25, 1995 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

[lx]The American Way of Death, 252.

Funeral Bibliography

“A Buyer’s Guide to Preneed Funeral Planning.” National Research and Information Center, 1993.

“Ashes to Ashes.” American Demographics, May 1995.

Planning for Difficult Times: Final Details – A Guide for Survivors When Death Occurs. American Association of Retired Persons.

Bryce, Robert. “Undertaking Profits.” Houston Press, 17-23 February 1994.

Caskets and Burial Vaults. Federal Trade Commission, August 1992.

“Changing Styles Bring Cremation Industry to Life.” American Demographics, December 1992, 25.

“Check This Out – Discount Funerals for Your Loved Ones.” Transcript of “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio, 26 March 1994.

Connolly, James. “Some Directors Cast a Pall on Funerals.” National Catholic Reporter, 25 August 1995.

“Consumer Casket USA Catalogue and Price List.” Erie: November 1996.

Cook, Alicia Skinner and Geri Bosley. “The Experience of Participating in Bereavement Research: Stressful or Therapeutic?” Death Studies 19 (1995) 157-170.

Cremation Facts. No Publication Data.

“Cremation Explained: Answers to Questions Most Frequently Asked.” Cremation Association of North America, 1986.

Facts About Funerals: Consumer Information. Texas Funeral Service Commission.

Final Details: A Guide for Survivors When Death Occurs. American Association of Retired Persons.

Funerals: A Consumer Guide. Federal Trade Commission, December 1994.

Frozena, Cynthia L. “Homecare.” AJN 94 (September 1994), 68-71.

Fry, Virgil. The Funeral Service as Worship and Pastoral Care: An Essay for Ministers. 1992.

“Funerals and Ripoffs.” Home Page on the Website of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, 1996.

Gill, Richard T. “Whatever Happened to the American Way of Death?” The Public Interest, 123 (Spring 1996) 105-117.

“How to Control Funeral Costs.” Consumers’ Research, 78 (August 1995).

Hyland, Liam and Morse, Janice M. “Orchestrating Comfort: The Role of Funeral Directors.” Death Studies, 19 (1995) 453-474.

Klicker, Ralph L., Ph.D. Planning a Funeral. Funeral Service Consumer Assistance Program.

Leonard, Joanne. “Ashes to Ashes.” The Saturday Evening Post, 266 (March 1994) 63-64.

Lino, Mark. “The $3,800 Farewell.” American Demographics, July 1990.

Lubove, Seth. “Dancing on Graves.” Forbes, 28 February 1994.

“Memorial Oaks Funeral Home General Price List and Outer Burial Container Price List”. 21 August 1996.

Mitford, Jessica. The American Way of Death. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1963.

“Mortuary Price Guide”. Phoenix: Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, August 1996.

“Newswatch – The Cost of Dying.” U.S. News & World Report, 12 February 1996.

Ostertag, Robert. “Funerals follow-up: New FTC Rules.” Consumers Digest, 1 May 1996.

Palmeri, Christopher. “Funeral Prospects.” Forbes, 11 September 1995.

Sandifer, Steve, My Love List. Houston: Soutwest Church of Christ, 1996.

Vernon, Jane. “It’s Your Funeral.” New Statesman and Society, 6 (16 April) 1993.

Wallstin, Brian. “Mortician to the Masses.” Houston Press, 17-23 February 1994.

Wasik, John. “Fraud in the Funeral Industry.” Consumers Digest, 1 September 1995.

Yip, Pamela. “Your Money: Prepare to Shop for Funeral Costs.” Houston Chronicle, 5 February 1996.

Young, Gregory W. The High Cost of Dying. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1994.

  1. Alan
    February 22, 2008 at 9:00 am

    This is a great article!
    We are undertaking a transformation to your “5th kind of pastor,” the one who prepares the congregation in advance to be spiritual, purposeful, prepared and good stewards of God’s gifts.

    I would like to use very nearly all of your paper as a handout in our upcoming Sunday School classes on end of life issues and planning.

    Could I have your permission to do so?

    Many thanks

  2. Anonymous
    February 22, 2008 at 10:19 am

    Alan, that is okay with me as long as you note that this was written in 1996 and understand that the situation has changed with all the consolidation of funeral homes. I am out of touch with any current data. I know Mitford’s book has been updated since her 1963 edition and that would be worth checking out. Prices are surely out of date and the web must have a treasure store of current pricing and other options. I posted it so that my research might bless others. Let me know how it goes.

    David

  3. June 21, 2008 at 8:08 am

    Although I found this late…..great stuff! This is exactly what our company is pursuing as we speak to bridge this gap.

    Todd Epping
    http://www.lovingurns.com

  4. Anonymous
    September 23, 2008 at 5:40 am

    Alan, I think that some of your information is relavent but I do find that some of it is not. From your standpoint, you make it seem as though all funeral homes and operating funeral directors are scoundrals waiting outside of local hospitals and hospice centers on the next death and unsuspecting victim. Most funeral directors get into the business for the love and passion of helping people during their time of need. If you research the average salary of a funeral director, it would not be anything to write home about. For the most part, we choose this profession for the purpose of SERVING OTHERS and not ourselves. We are in a business where we deal with death and dying everyday. The emotional strain that it puts on the individual is often times to much to speak about. We work long hours…often times 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. We don’t get Christmas and Thanksgiving off. We miss alot of time with our families to serve other families. We don’t get paid much, but the passion for service gets us up the next day. If you took the time to visit a funeral home and see how many hours of care, the necessary education and the priceless compassion that goes along with the profession, you would view and write differently about us. All funeral establishments are not the same and to use the bad examples of corporate owned funeral homes is an inaccurate account of funeral service. Nearly 80% of funeral homes are family-owned and operated establishments. These are the mom and pop funeral homes that have been serving their communities for nearly 100 yrs. Often times burying members of its’ community without making any profit at all. They sponsor programs at local churches, they donate to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations and most importantly they invest back into the communities they serve. My suggestion is that you spend time at those establishments and see if your view of the funeral director and the money hungry, coffin selling, predator is the same.

    Sincerely,
    A servant of God called to Minister through Funeral Service

  5. September 23, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    I am sorry that my paper offended you. You must understand that this was written 12 years ago and the book upon which I heavily relied was already a number of years old by then. I have no doubt that my facts are old and maybe I should state that in the paper. I am surprised to hear you say that 80% of the business is family owned because that was definitely NOT the trend in 1996.

    My intention was in no way to disparage all of those in the industry but to warn people that there are other options and to make people aware about some of the emotional issues people face before they arrive on the scene. I praise God for people like yourself in service to others. It is worth saying that I know of others who are good men and women in this business.

    I live overseas and so have little opportunity to do as you suggest. Perhaps you can offer some other studies that would be offer alternatives to what I have written?

    David

  6. July 14, 2011 at 8:09 am

    thank you for writing this helpful article, as a casket supplier we are aware of the unnecessary high costs of funeral homes and we are here to help families understand their alternatives

  7. November 12, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Very interesting piece, and I would agree that Pastors have an important role to play in helping their community at their time of need.
    The web site http://www.us-funerals.com provides a comprehensive guide to what to do in the event of a death, with heaps of informative and current articles, along with a free directory of all funeral homes in the US.
    In terms of ‘low-cost’ options for a funeral, DFS Memorials as a network of local, family-owned funeral homes who can specifically meet this need. In each area there is a designated low-cost funeral provider and the web site tells you the price they charge for a basic cremation. It is as little as $500 in some areas. To find out more visit http://www.dfsmemorials.com

  8. May 21, 2012 at 6:46 am

    This article assumes that there are no christian funerals directors providing a needed service in conjunction with pastors and churches in their communities. Sad, because a good and professional funeral director can help families by listening to their needs and providing a service and merchandise options that let them “spend” on their loved one only what they really need too… And there is nothing wrong with making a reasonable profit to be able to actually provide the services they are requesting. The funeral director and his staff then make a living, are able to tithe to their own church and able to purchase goods and services within the community, enabling it to grow and pay those who work in the various fields as well. The Bible talks about the Shepherd ( Pastor) but also talks about the role of those who handle the deaths in the community. We all have a role in providing the tangible touch of God. And we All know there are crooks in every industry, even the church. We all must do a better job in our accountability to God and how we work with each other

    • May 21, 2012 at 7:00 am

      I admit that this article is now a bit old and perhaps it is time to remove it from my blog. I wrote it over 15 years ago and perhaps things have changed–certainly the costs have gone up. I never meant to offend anyone and I am sure there are godly funeral home directors out there who genuinely care for people and many who care for the needy. But, it seemed at the time that the big business aspect had stacked the odds against the small operators and kept forcing costs up unnecessarily. I am grateful for those out there who are providing this service with sensitivity and care.

  9. January 11, 2013 at 12:51 am

    I personally really want to save this blog, “1. Cutting
    Death Costs: The Churchs Role A Ruach Journey” on my web-site.
    Will you care if perhaps I reallydo it? Thx -Janell

    • March 20, 2013 at 7:03 am

      sure no problem. It is now outdated and needs a rewrite

      david

  10. January 17, 2013 at 9:25 am

    “1. Cutting Death Costs: The Churchs Role
    A Ruach Journey” was indeed a relatively pleasant post, .

    Keep creating and I will keep on viewing! Thanks for your time -Tanisha

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