Questions, questions, questions

Todd Van Beck's picture

This week I received a message from a former student of mine who today is a success in our profession (no thanks to me having been his professor). His message caught my attention and once again I sat in my office asking myself questions about the state of the state of this great profession.

Here is the situation my former student encountered.  In one week two former casket company sales representatives and executives from two separate casket companies died and my former student received the call to serve both families.  I gleaned from his message that these two men had worked in the casket world for decades, and between the two many decades of work had taken place, and I was of the thinking that thousands of casket had been sold to funeral directors who in turn sold them to bereaved families.

Both casket representatives were immediately cremated.  No casket, no embalming, no flowers, and no nothing save for the incineration of the dead human remains, and an instruction from the descendents of both families concerning the disposition of the cremated remains.  There you have it in a nutshell, and this made me start thinking.

I have the firm conviction that it is anyone’s absolute right to choose what they want.  No question, I mean this is American – freedom reigns supreme.  The funeral profession and cemetery activities will not fold up because two former casket sales reps, or someone else for that matter, decided to do what anybody finally decides to do.  Options and alternatives are quite popular in our society today and the insightful funeral profession offers scads of options and alternative.  This decision concerning the two casket representatives is not the end of the world.  There are many more important issues confronting the human experience than what happened to two casket reps who sold caskets thousands of times.

However this situation just started my brain thinking again about the state of the state of this world of death that we all live in.  Here are some unanswered questions that I have, and as I always like to learn stuff about my profession, so I openly ask for anybody reading this to jump in the deep end of the pool and educate this old fat grumpy undertaker as to why these things continue to go on.   Remember these questions come from Todd, so don’t expect too much sophistication.

Here are some questions:

1.  Why would someone who has sold caskets for decades to hundreds of funeral directors upon their own death would not utilize a casket? 

2.  Why would a funeral director, who has conducted hundreds and in some cases thousands of funerals in their career, upon their own death not have a funeral?  I remember several times in my own limited career that some mighty prominent funeral directors died and nothing was done.  No ritual, no ceremony, nothing.  Why?  Does this not strike anyone else out there funeral land as something to question?  When a funeral director does not have a funeral for themselves what kind of a message is sent to the community that they have served faithfully for years?  Is it not an oxymoron, the funeral director might just not like funerals?

3.   Why it is less expensive to cremate a dead human body than to dig a grave usually? Crematories require thousands and thousands of dollars of equipment and facility investments, and cremation requires certifications, training and expensive on-going maintenance,  and has significant liability and is a time consuming procedure, and then the post cremation activities are involved and requires meticulous attention to detail, but yet to dig a hole in the ground with a mechanical digger, which takes much less time than to cremate, and if the grave, God forbid, is dug in the wrong place the error can be quickly corrected (an error in cremation cannot be corrected), and there seems to be no certification and formal training to dig a grave, so why does this cost more money than to cremate?, And if you die and want a burial on a week-end the cost can be ten times what a cremation costs to accomplish.   So here is my question: why is digging a grave so much more expensive than cremating a dead body?

4.   Why is it that embalming a dead human body is cheaper than digging a grave?  A dead human body was alive, lived life, and influenced others.  In some religions the human body is sacred.   Learning the art and science of embalming is not a snap.  It takes time, several years of college education, mentorship, internships, study, examinations (tons of them) skill, knowledge and expertise.  Embalming a dead human body appears to me to be ten times more intricate and requires ten times more skill and knowledge than it does to dig a hole in the ground, no matter how important that grave might be.  Why is this?

These are four questions that just baffle me, and I ask for and am extending the right arm of fellowship to any reader that can help me fill in the blanks concerning this stuff.  I am obviously missing something here, but then missing stuff happens to me all the time.

I am asking for insight, for education, for your thoughts out there in the funeral/cemetery world, and please don’t give a thought if your answers establish that the person (me) who generated these questions is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, many people have concluded that fact years ago.  Your thoughts, honest candid thoughts, are welcomed, and at my stage of life and career, well, folks, when you have been shot with seventeen arrows the eighteenth one does not hurt very much.  I hope to hear from many of you good folks.



Did anyone read this? I found it very thought provoking and we have discussed it here at my office.
As to why the casket salesman and funeral directors didn't have "traditional" funerals as most all of us would expect, I would venture to say that neither individual was passionate about their job, at all. Selling caskets and performing funeral service was probably just a job for them, as it must have been for their spouses and families. I can hardly believe this to be true and am shocked that this happened.
And to your question why interment fees cost more than cremation, I could be crass (and honest) and say it is because I have a "captive" consumer who will have to pay whatever I charge if they want to use the lot. Look, my main revenue sources are property sales, interment fees, memorial and vault sales, and interest income. If I were to say reduce my interment fee to what, $250 or whatever the amount area funeral homes charge for cremation, where am I going to make up for the $750-$1000 in lost revenue for each interment fee? Charge $3000 for a gravespace? Add it to my bronze memorial price that consumers are already choking on? Some of you hotshots are going to say, "well why not, that's what we do and we sell those packages every minute of every day!" Sorry, I don't believe you!
These days with the economy barely chugging along and 1 in 10 unemployed, it is not surprising to see the cremation rate going up. It is or can be a less expensive alternative to traditional casketed burial and will continue to gain popularity so we have to embrace it and offer services to those families that choose it.
But why does it have to be cheap to be cremated? I suggest funeral homes add $1000+ to their cremation price and close the gap between cremation and burial.
Most important, we as cemeterians need to do a better job of educating the public of the importance of memorialization or scattering will get the best of us!
That's my rant and I'm sticking to it.

Being the student that Todd referenced, first, I would like to say that much of my passion about funeral service was in fact planted by Todd in 1982-83 in CIncinnati. I couldn't imagine being an undertaker if I hadn't had (and still have) him as a mentor. The reason I brought this to his attention was that I found it troubling that these two individuals were unique in that they had multi generational relationships with premier companies. One of the men grew up in Marsellus, NY and was a legacy employee with Marsellus Casket Co. The other was from Clarksburg, WV and was a legacy of the casket company that bore the name of his hometown. Both of these men were raised in the traditions of these institutions. That is what is troubling....a lifetime spent in an endeavor was disregarded at the time it should have been undeniably significant. Each of the survivors spoke fondly of the company that appeared to be significant in the life of their loved one....but the choice for "simple cremation" was made without reservations or apparent regret. I would like to think that I'm pretty good at entering into discussions about options, but they had apparently decided long before they arrived at my arrangement office that these each were to be a "disposal". We are experiencing and working to navigate through this paradigm shift...Ray Visotski, Aiken, SC.

It would be interesting to know,what in fact turned off these casket reps to a decision of immediate cremation?????........Im sure Ray you gave the family all the options.....It may evolved many years ago at other funeral homes that thay called upon....thay may have come across funeral homes with poor attention to cosmetic detail,unprofessional directors who worry more about their expensive toys rather than the family in need of care We are in such a hurry........lets get it done Im here for the pay check....Lets face it options take time maybe our casket reps saw the future from the past...Maybe
the value factor was gone from their eyes for a good funeral or perhaps memorialization was just not their thing.............So fellow morticians we all better start cleaning up OUR acts and give..whats that old saying............SERVICE.........Andrew Jorritsma,Milford Pa

Not knowing the circumstances, but with experience in a heavily cremation oriented market, I make the following observation. I believe many times it starts with the clergy, a rather liberal lot in certain parts of the USA. "The body is a shell" is a favorite to make survivors feel better, but do not promote the value of the visual goodbye. I have had clergy tell me that they do NOT want a casket in their church. I have had many clergy tell families that they do not need the funeral home at the church for a memorial service. I know clergy that will not officiate a service if it is on their day off. None of this helps our cause. Then there is hospice who routinely tell families to leave the deceased in the death bed for family members who might be traveling hours to get to the home. Some hospitals do the same thing, or let families view in the morgue. Even if there is no embalming or direct cremation is the choice of the family, everywhere I have ever worked promotes private family viewing in a comfortable setting with features posed at no extra charge Lastly the degradation of the profession has been allowed and condoned by associations as a whole. We as funeral home owners and employees have a difficult time "selling" the value of the funeral as it seems like a sales pitch. The associations should spend their time and money promoting the value of the funeral. Cremate if you want, but have a viewing and a formal service with the body present. It is very difficult for individual funeral homes to promote "spending more money" without sounding like money grabbers.

The cost of digging a grave is more expensive than cremation, I believe, because it is completely consumer driven. Those who are passionate about burial as opposed to cremation will pay anything to get-er-done. Those who choose cremation (generally) see little value in the funeral experience and will search out the least costly route. The guy down the street that advertises cremation for $595 complete gets the same job done as "Every Day Funeral Home" does and charges maybe a quarter the amount. Would you go to a $5 barber if you got the same haircut as the $25 "stylist" gives? Probably. Embalming costs are low because the person setting the prices is many times afraid that if it is too expensive people won't buy it. I know many funeral homes that charge virtually the same and sometimes more for as embalming as compared to opening a grave. A funeral director that had directed funerals and saw to grieving families for decades should have the best, most celebratory and well attended funeral of anyone. When I started in funeral service people died of heart attacks and most who had cancer were opened up in the OR, closed up and given a week or two to live. Modern medicine has allowed those with ailing hearts to live longer more productive lives. Unfortunately they live long enough to contract cancer. Someone who dies of cancer often gets to the point where they do not want to be seen publicly, feel they are useless to society and just want to be cremated or buried quietly with no fanfare. The mode of death has much to do with personal decisions about the funeral. If a funeral director dies from a long term, debilitating disease, he may very well choose the same thing his clients have for years; no viewing, just burn me or throw me in the dumpster. It is not necessarily not believing in the funeral for these directors, it may in fact be a circumstances driven decision. As for the casket salesman, he may not have had a part in making the decision about the funeral or lack thereof. His job took him away from his family days at a time, he missed ballgames, plays and maybe even a birth because he was on the road. His family may have seen the source of his income as the source of many a disappointment in the family, and thus turned away from a traditional funeral. Just a guess.

Hello Todd, it seems most hypocritical for funeral directors to scorn and put their noses down to families who cremate.....then turn right around and do it themselves.....are these funeral directors the disgruntled ones in the business? I remember vividly as a young fd, being told to hurry up and wait on a direct cremation and get them out of here, they don't care about the deceased or that the family must be nuts. We don't seem to practice what we preach any more. The matter of the cost of digging a grave is profit, in the city it averages 1200 plus dollars, then drive 30 miles out of town and the cost is 650 or less........A friend of mine in California tells me that the funeral costs there are reasonable (high cremation rate there).....but the families can't afford burial property or the digging! they cremate. If you want to attempt to sway the public towards a viewing, reduce your embalming fees, most funeral homes can absorb the costs if done in house....the cost of chemicals is minimal.....and pricing the visitation and rental casket might be more inviting if the embalming is downsized in price....the public doesn't understand what embalming is or how long it takes.......years ago a corporate executive tried to convince me that embalming was a medical procedure and that embalming should be priced accordingly on the GPL. Well I guess taxidermy is a medical procedure too....hmmmm. We need to start over and rethink this whole process and decide whether service or unrealistic profit is going to save your business.

Not so sure I agree with that. Most folks that I speak with have made up their mind long before they see a GPL or find out what our embalming charge is. Embalming is something we can do by virtue of our license. You can buy a casket on the internet, rent a limo from the yellow pages and have your services in a hotel meeting room...but they can't embalm. Simple example of supply and demand. I went to school for five years (BS + AS) to get my license. What is wrong with charging for it? By reducing the price, it diminishes the value. May I suggest you call Batesville and tell them they need to charge less for caskets?

As far as chemicals being inexpensive, I would use the analogy of getting a cavity filled by the dentist...the material is inexpensive, but you pay for the skill of the dentist to apply the material. Our responsibility is to have the skill. Just the opinion of a ""

Hello -

I have great respect for the education, the family services, and the general underlying business principles of the funeral service business. My impression of its caring and professional attitudes makes its worth unquestioned in my eyes.

Understand, I am neither a funeral director nor associated with any funeral-home related business.

I believe this gives me rather a bit of latitude in the tenor and tone of the statements I can make about the funeral services business here, and how it is fundamentally changing.

I believe the perception I have of the questions asked here, boiled down, is how to maximize profits and protect revenues from the death services business against the changing values in the culture against the soon-to-be-forgotten high-end, full service funeral service business of days gone by.

There should be no shame or need to conceal among friends the fact that business men are in business for profit. You trained, invested, and hope to make an economic return. That is as natural as the facts of death and dying. I also understand that this issue is sensitive topical discussion in the funeral business.

However, this forum's comments regarding grave-digging services being more lucratively priced than other aspects of the business simply smack of used-car salesmanship and protection-of-territory language. Sorry to be blunt, but the forum is open.

I am reading comments about the arbitrary 'charging-up' for cremation services costs to make the profit margin equivalent to the more traditional slate of services offered. Sorry, but a good part of the public I know - has that perception too. Arbitrary charging up for services and taking advantage of families at a vulnerable time, that is sensitive. Also, people are sensitive to the prices they pay for things, yes, even funerals.

You discuss this concept with the grave digger increasing costs for commodity services, and yet refuse to see your profession in that same mirror.....

I can say these things because I do not have to observe the strict decorum of the profession; I do not derive my income as

Respectful and fitting funeral services are specialized services, protected by monopoly licensure laws, and that one generally expects the consumer to pay a premium for premium service. (See my section about the same market conditions existing for lawyers in practice today....below. One would believe that lawyers have market-pricing power, based on monopoly licensure laws, but the pricing power of lawyers is being greatly diminished.)

Having been involved in the burial arrangements of a family member, I must say that the service my family received was nothing but First Class and top notch professional.

However, that service was limited to removal and direct cremation services, and return of the cremains in an urn not purchased from the funeral home. There was no burial, no visitation services rendered, nor flowers, transport needs, or the like.

This was simply the pre-arrangement wishes of the deceased. He decided the money spent on Life and the medical defeat of his disease was a priority of his family, and disposition of his remains was not as high in his order of priorities in the calculus of his disposition financial spending decision.

I perceive the funeral service business as reaching that spot on the S-curve, not unlike what the Legal Profession is facing. There is an over abundance of legal talent, too many lawyers fishing for the same business, and limited jobs available. Many lawyers, Juris Doctors educated individuals - are practicing law in two-week contract gigs as contract Lawyers at rates of $20/hr, while they search for work. At the same time, there is untold growth in the number of third and fourth tier law schools, and the schools are increasing enrollment and taking in lower-quality applicant-candidates.

So, yes, while I certainly agree someone with 5+ years of funeral services education should absolutely charge what they are worth, as an EDUCATED PERSON they must also realize the market is saturated with direct cremation mills that charge $395, 'complete services' and these establishments, for better or worse, are the new business reality - just as $20 an hour lawyers are available, if you look for them.

Your education is valuable, but to the Consumer, Service A at $395 does not personally yield them the value that your like priced $2000 Service B does.

Sure, you will capture the sale of the occasional traditional case, but they are certainly becoming fewer and further between. This will cause greater consolidation in the funeral services market than seen up to this point.

Funeral services as such are being desensitized by many of the forces in the culture as discussed on this page, yet, the Wal-Mart mentality of lowering prices and receiving high perceived quality in the culture is also a foe to maintaining death services profitability....just as the crematory business requires expensive equipment, expensive training, and costly-to-observe liability procedures, yet they are getting CHEAP... And the Consumer knows it is getting CHEAP, and that is part of the profit-cutting problem. Just as prospective car buyers need only to surf the internet to know the dealer holdbacks and what used to be dealer proprietory pricing and deal making information.... Funeral Market Pricing Power is being lost, and it is unreasonable to believe it will be regained. Organized family viewings in non-funeral home settings is one hallmark of proof of that statement.

In the funeral industry, there is funeral home chain expansion into what used to be the traditional, local mom-and-pop funeral home business. The families served were friends and neighbors of the home -owner/operators. This dynamic is changing greatly. The funeral directors expect the Wal-Mart style homes are going to have the same home-town business draw and appeal as the old time small home owner/operators did. Ah, I don't think so.

Also, as expressed, the public is shifting away from body-centric services.

This is not to be equated with movement of families away from the respect or dignity or love shown to the memory and disposition of remains of a loved one. It simply means that the love is no longer clearly expressed in the form of a large check to a funeral director! It is not more difficult to discern than that.

The public is shifting away from the costs of the formerly popular full-service, high end casketed burial.

When Consumers see that they can, in-deed, order up flowers, limos, caskets and urns, and the like from funeral home competitors, even from vendors located on the Internet, then it should come as no surprise that funeral cost sensitivities and disposition beliefs are changing.....

The funeral services pricing practices as discussed in this forum is part of the reason why.

You can edit my post, or summarily delete and dismiss it as uninformed, uneducated, unwelcome, or simply daft, but there it is. Do with it what you would - I am fairly secure in knowing that it won't also mean that the market forces afoot in what is becoming the new traditional funeral service business and the pricing issues model will go away with it! On the contrary....

Anonymous, I think your comment should be required reading for everyone who works in this profession.

Linda Budzinski