How Much is That Funeral? Observations on CNBC's "Death:It's A Living"

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How Much Is That Funeral? Observations on CNBC’s “Death: It’s A Living”

by Bob Fells, ICCFA Executive Director

By now there is a consensus that the CNBC program, “Death: It’s A Living,” is that rarity of rarities: a fair, well-balanced mainstream media exploration of the funeral services profession. I say well-balanced because it seems that just about everything was covered, from inside the manufacturing plants for caskets, inside the funeral home, the cemetery and the crematory. Industry scandals were covered but, for once, they weren’t the focal point of the show. Everybody got their say including the industry critic.

Special thanks must go to our colleagues and suppliers who were willing to go on camera. I’ve done that and I have coached others who have done that. There is a little fear of misspeaking, but the greater concern is that the footage will be manipulated into Lord knows what. A typical reaction to watching yourself in the finished production is finding that some of your best points were not aired but left on the cutting room floor.

That said, honesty compels me to state that “Death: It’s A Living” has set a very high standard by which all future media reports into our profession should be judged. This program is light years away from the dreary “60 Minutes” segment and MONEY magazine article of last year that were shocked, shocked to find that perfection did not reign in the funeral services profession.  Physician, cure thyself.

Perhaps most impressive in the CNBC program is the welcomed use of statistics to provide viewers with genuine perspective. For example, we are told that there are 2.5 million deaths each year in the U.S.; there are 20,000 funeral homes; 50,000 cemeteries of which 90 percent are nonprofit; the public companies account for 14 percent of the market; the national cremation rate is over 40 percent with some states significantly exceeding that average.

The flashiest stat was citing our trade as a $17 billion a year industry. I’m not sure where they came up with that number but it pales in comparison to the breakfast cereals industry, which hauls in $24 billion annually.  That’s a lot of Cheerios. CNBC even told us the fate of those who ran off with the money, something that 60 Minutes “forgot” to mention. It was nice to see the windows opened and the breeze come in.

Prices were quoted, both retail and wholesale, without being judgmental about them. But let’s face it, the typical reaction to any price for funeral-related services or merchandise is surprise that it “costs that much.”  This begs the question of how much should a funeral cost? I’ll use the term “funeral” generically to include all phases of goods and services including cremation. So how much should a funeral cost, or a house, a car, a college education, a wedding reception? The answer in every case is that it depends on what you want. What kind of house, car, college education, wedding reception, or funeral do you want?

If there is sticker shock on funerals, it may be because few people know what funerals cost or why, unlike houses, cars, etc. And where there is no understanding of pricing, there will always be dissatisfaction with the price once known. Do funerals cost too much? Do houses cost too much? How about groceries, not to mention gasoline? If the CNBC program suggests any homework for the funeral profession, it is that we need to get busy and hold a sensible discussion with the public about our prices.

Most of us can evaluate the price of a car and nobody has to explain to us why a Porsche costs considerably more than, say, a Ford. And if we are offered a Porsche for the price of a Ford we will rightly become very suspicious.  But why would we pay more for a Porsche when it provides the same basic reliable transportation as a Ford? Again, we know the answer is that intangible “prestige value” that comes from driving a Porsche. Many of us will say that this consideration is silly, but others see the car they drive as making a statement about themselves.

The same considerations influence funerals but they are less understood by the public: a plain pine box serves the same function as a bronze casket but some consumers will find intangible values in the bronze that are absent from the pine, at least for them. The real challenge is comparing two caskets that appear the same but have very different prices. Funeral professionals can explain why there is a difference, but only the consumer can decide whether those differences are important to him or her. I have known consumers who wanted the most inexpensive casket but saw great value in purchasing an elaborate memorial for the grave – or chose cremation but selected an expensive “designer” urn. It all comes back to what has value – and relevance – to the consumer.

Once upon a time, talking about our funeral was called the “last taboo” topic in America. For a variety of reasons, this no longer seems to be the case and for the most part this is a good thing. But we may have only moved the ball a bit forward on the field. The new “taboo’ topic may be discussing the pricing of funerals and why they cost what they cost. To think that funeral prices should have a mystique is indeed a mistake, leaving us open to charges of greed, among other things. It’s difficult to be greedy when the average funeral home profit is 6 percent. So thank you, CNBC, for showing the need for open discussions on just how much that funeral costs.