Arguably more damaging to the general public’s perception of the death care industry than Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” or even the bizarre tale of the not-cremated bodies stored on the property of the Tri-State Crematory in Noble, Ga., is what has happened in Illinois with the state’s preneed trust fund. The story has played itself out over the past few years in national headlines, which has done nothing but damage the perception of funeral service and called into question the whole concept of prepaid funerals. While this has been going on, the state of Illinois has been trying to follow the money.
In a nutshell, 30 years ago, the Illinois Funeral Directors Association Services was issued a license to administer a preneed trust fund. A decade ago, IFDA reported a surplus of $18 million in its preneed trust fund. A year later in 2001, the fund started to lose money. Five years later, the Illinois Comptroller’s office finds that the fund is in the hole to the tune of nearly $40 million. In 2006, the state’s comptroller’s office found that IFDA Services received more than $8 million in excessive fees from the fund from 2000 to 2005. In 2007, the comptroller’s office revokes IFDA’s license to oversee the trust fund. In 2008, the state’s Department of Financial and Professional Regulation said IFDA had no legal right to run a trust fund and brings in Merrill Lynch Bank and Trust Co. as the trustee.
With several lawsuits still pending, the full story of the Illinois Funeral Directors Associations Services Preneed Trust is still being written.
In Illinois these days, the whole sad and infuriating tale is being retold because of the state’s political schedule. When Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached a year ago, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn was sworn in as governor. It is election time again in Illinois for governor, and a total of seven Republicans are seeking the party’s nod while on the Democrat side, Quinn is being challenged by Comptroller Dan Hynes.
In a scathing press release issued on Jan. 6 by the Quinn campaign, Hynes is blamed for taking too much time to react to problems with the preneed fund. The press release accuses Hynes of neglect in not requiring regular audits of the IFDA trust fund. And of course Hynes fires back. Meantime the Republican candidates continue to take notes in order to build more campaign material for the general election.
The thing I find somewhat ironic and more than just a little disturbing is that Quinn and Hynes are part of the same political party, which ironically is the political party in currently in power in Illinois. In a situation that has so much unresolved (there are five lawsuits pending, there is a money shortfall that will hurt consumers and bankrupt funeral businesses) the fair question to ask is, Who has the answers? Why does the political powers that be think that the prudent thing to do is problem admiring instead of problem solving? With charges being fired back and forth all I am wondering is where are the answers and how are the victims going to be helped?
Such is the state of this election. Maybe there will be more answers after the primary election and maybe the game of political finger pointing might finally give way to political problem solving. There is always hope.
Edward J. Defort
Memorial Business journal