A House Divided Against Itself

Todd Van Beck's picture

I went to a meeting the other evening concerning our profession.  It does not matter whether the group was composed of cemeterians or funeral directors, not in the least – or it should not matter, anyway, not these days with what is going on out in the death care world.

The basic meeting agenda which was printed on nice paper was a supposedly devoted to a discussion about the rapid changes in the demographics, the market, the buying habits of consumers, and the like.  I thought the agenda looked really good, and was anticipating learning some additional information concerning what the hell is going on out there.  I guess everyone attending had the same idea – at the beginning of the meeting anyway.

Present at the meeting were a few personalities whose histories preceded them as being touchy, moody, and at times argumentative and confrontational.  Out of thirty people this small group represented maybe three. 

I thought that time was of the essence because there was one invited speaker who really knows her stuff, and I was looking forward to listening to her presentation.  In her talk she made natural and predictable references to different groups which make up our profession.  I thought her remarks both well thought out and timely.  However in referring to different “groups” in the death care profession a fuse was ignited with some of the “touchy” group and off they went.

I have been to meetings, too many meetings over my career, where the results of the meeting ends up being a witch hunt aimed at portions of our profession who are not even at these meetings.  You know what I am talking about.

The “touchy” group began ranting and raving about ancient, and I mean ancient history, concerning the long time biases and simmering anger that certain groups have towards one another in the death care profession.  I heard absolutely nothing new; I had and have been listening to these types of divided diatribes for years, and in time several of the other attendees just started to roll their eye balls in disgust and frustration, because it was the same old stuff.  You know the routine – this group is errorless and clean and saintly, and this other group who is not in the room is foul, corrupt, egomaniacs, and control freaks. 

I drove home that night feeling a pit in the center of my stomach.  I thought “have we made such little progress at finding our unity within our diversity?”  Yes, there is the idea – finding unifying ground within the diversity of all the groups which today make up the death care profession.  Boundaries and territories seem clearly evident to be evaporating before our eyes – why?  Because the public is demanding that the boundaries and territories which have caused such acrimony and dislike in the past go away – now!

I remember when I read the first Wirthlin Study and saw the information which, in a nut shell, said that the American public really does not see any difference between a cemeterian and a funeral director.  I was dumbfounded I could not believe it, but then when the second Wirthin Study came out it said the same thing.

The fracturing of any professional group into splinter groups rarely, except for social reasons and purposes, works very well.  It doesn’t work well because of scant resources, repetition of services, and the like.  However it seems clear that within the death care profession there are splintering groups all over the place, and make no mistake, there are consequences for this division of the house.

I gave a major talk one time which got me into a whole lot of trouble.  I stood up in front of a group of death care professionals and said publically the radical thought that we need to unify, we need a type of a Moses figure who can bring the groups together into one strong organization which has great resources pertaining to people, money, talents, vision and action.

In this talk I asked this question “Who speaks for death care?”  Not who speaks for cemeteries, or funeral homes, or preneed programs, or grief counseling, or monuments, or ground maintenance, or insurance programs, or any of the traditional splinter groups, but who speaks for death care overall?

We all know that lawyers basically do not like each other – that is common knowledge, but you would never ever know it by the work and activities of the American Bar Association.  The lawyers might fight and scratch each other’s eyes out in the real world, but when they need to stand up together as a unified group there is one organization which represents them, and the American Bar Association does have power and resources. Can you even imagine how far the Federal Trade Commission would get if they tried to implement the “the Lawyers Rule” to regulate the lawyers in this country?  Enough said on that point.

What a mess the medical profession is in.  The problems of health care make our problems look like kindergarten stuff.  However the physicians of this country, while certainly in turmoil, are represented by the American Medical Association, and when the AMA says something even the President of the United States listens.  One organization, representing the myriad of levels of medical practice in this country, and it works exceptionally well.

Everybody knows that drinking too much milk or eating too much red meat is not good for you – everybody knows that – but according to the American Dairy Association, drinking milk is not only good for you it is sexy – “Got Milk?”  Do I even need to identify which association developed the national branding of “What’s for dinner?”  Red meat might not be good for you, but you would never know it from the work of the American Beef Association.

Here is a fantastic vision.  What could be the possibilities available to the entire death care profession if all the major organizations, while maintaining their own autonomy, just pooled enough money without regard for being in total absolute control of everything and took that impressive amount of cash and hired a posh Fifth Avenue advertising company in Manhattan and developed a national, country-wide advertising campaign around the themes that what the cemeteries, funeral homes, preneed programs, etc. do for the community is good and right and brings tremendous benefits to all communities, and run that commercial as many times as the American Dairy Association runs “Got Milk” and do not stop.  Make the ad part of the American popular culture.  Here is an idea – make death care work popular and interesting to the public.

Here is even a more crazy and nutty vision.  What would be the potentials, the possibilities, and opportunities, and the results for the future of this great line of work if the major organizations and associations amalgamated together?  Standing together as one voice representing the entire world of death care as does the AMA or the American Bar Association?  What might just be the results?   The closest thing I have seen in this direction is the open membership policy of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, but can more pioneering work at finding this unity in our diversity be done?  I say let the thing be pressed.

Driving home that evening I was sad.  We are still battling the same old ghosts of ancient days long gone by.  As I climbed into bed I thought that if I wrote this I would again get in trouble, I would certainly be offending somebody’s territory or boundary.  I thought is it even worth the effort of taking this position?  I know I would probably have a better chance at changing the financial structure of China than calling for unity within the diversity of the death care profession, but I think it is worth the risk, so here is the call.

I know we have come a long way at working for cooperation and common ground and the work continues, and I am going to ask the indulgence of the reader to balance what I am saying with what I experienced at that terribly disappointing meeting, but I have had this unification, amalgamation feeling and idea for a long time now, and thought it just might be worth making it public again.

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.



I have been actively involved in death care since before I could drive...and I do not come from a family in funeral service. I have served as a funeral director/embalmer, manager, partner and in multiple roles in corporate funeral service with different companies both operational and vendor side...

The thing that has most amazed me over the years is how very similar all of our challenges are...and how poorly everyone "in the same boat" works together...divided resources=divided message...and in an age when the consumer is changing rapidly and could care less about our territorial issues...

It's time to come together...or face challenges even greater than we are now dealing with...

Todd Van Beck's picture

To Mr. Hamgroup, first of all I had not idea I could reply back to you but Ms. Loving straightened me out. Thank you for your supportive words and clear thinking concerning this subject. This position has put me out of favor with many, but that was a risk I was prepared to take. It was mighty nice of you to reply, Thanks. TVB

It seems many Undertakers are too proud. We think we can serve better. We look at the obituaries and think, "Why did that family use that firm"? They have lousy facilities or their vehicles don't look as good as ours. I've heard it from co-workers, managers and owners. I would much rather call and ask a fellow mortician for help, like we did 20 years ago, rather than say or hear negative things about a colleague.
Good analogy, Todd, using other professions and how they stick together. It's too bad our pride gets in the way of serving our community like we vowed to do.
Our customer service is sadly diminishing, but is still practiced by very few. We think about the overhead more than the family in front of us. Those that lack the compassion, or never had it, are hurting everyone else. The bottom line is more important for too many. I can safely say that I'm not a Funeral Director because of the pay because we all know how underpaid and overworked we are. Maybe if owners could realize this it would attract the younger, ambitious individuals that our profession needs.
Thanks for the blog.
Glenn Telfer