Monks and undertakers

Todd Van Beck's picture

I suspect I might well regret writing this blog simply because I had an attorney several weeks ago in New Orleans firmly and repeatedly remind me what I had writing in past blogs – in other words tossing my own words right back at me, and he was good at his job.

However I know that the lawyer’s job and stock in life is not easy or pleasant, and having been through the deposition process a few times I was not surprised or ruffled (much).  The young man was just doing his job.

This writing however is not really about the situation that popped up in the great state of Louisiana.  However to be fair to the reader, in a nutshell, here is what is happening way down South.  The religious monks are making caskets – I suspect really nice caskets simply because I have seen the monks' caskets in the past and most of them are skilled craftsmen. (I suspect that last comment will also come back to haunt me, but I will take the risk.)  Now here is the rub: There is a rule, regulation, some prohibition in the great state of Louisiana stating that only licensed funeral directors can sell caskets to the public.  The monks want to sell casket directly to the public, and the funeral directors stood up and said no.

The situation ended up in Federal Court – and as of this writing I have not heard what the learned judge has decided, and not being a betting man, I am just going to wait and see what decision comes down from the bench.

Throughout these proceedings however I was struck by this notion.  I can well remember days when people’s interest in funerals, caskets, vaults, monuments, anything basically to do with death, was extremely distasteful to the typical American who only crossed the death threshold when it was necessary.  It was clear that the general public did not want to talk about, face up to or interact much with the funeral service world, and to be sure caskets were an intrinsic part of the funeral world, and hence funeral directors, by public default almost, were the basic lone provider of the casket. This system worked for years, and some states (like Louisiana) even passed rules which were designed to keep the casket in the exclusive preview of licensed funeral directors, because funeral directors, with a law or without a law, historically have been the only people in any community who ever showed the least inkling of interest in the casket.

However in the past decade people seem to be coming out of the woodwork to get their piece of the overall funeral pie so to speak, and the casket is a very easy target to focus on.  The monks in Louisiana want to sell caskets and have been selling them to the public and I cannot speculate as to what is their motivation to do so, but then there are people right off the street who decide to sell caskets directly to the public, sell memorial books, sell vaults, sell most any death/funeral related “commodity” directly to the public.

Not surprisingly however I have not seen many of these “outsiders” wanting to take on the responsibility of caring for the actual dead body, and/or serving the bereaved family during and after the commemorative funeral rituals, and I totally understand why – because it is easier, pure and simple.
The logic of the ease goes this way.  If I can sell a casket between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and make a nice profit, why should I even be concerned about getting out of bed at say 3:30 a.m. and respond to a death crisis?  No, my friends, the outside people who have put funeral service products on their financial radar screen want to be “funeral directors” without having to put in the time, education, mission and devotion to just do it right.

I suspect when my new lawyer friend reads this he will smile and his smile is probably justified and understandable given the sign of the times these days.  It is clear now to me that I am out of touch with exactly what it means in essence and substance to be a funeral professional these days.  There was a time that providing caskets was a part of the essence and substance of being a funeral professional.   Who are we now?  What now is our mission?  How do we respond kindly to the loss of something that clearly once was viewed as a “sacred burial receptacle” but today is very successfully being bantered around as a commodity rating about on level of importance with a refrigerator?  What do we do?

If as funeral directors we put up a protest, then naturally the response is that we are being greedy (as were some of the responses in Louisiana), and of course nothing is more archetypal in its offensiveness to the human experience than the stereotype of the greedy undertaker.  Even Charles Dickens portrayed the “greedy” undertaker in his novel when he invented the shylock London undertaker “Mordecai Mold.”  Of course, to be fair, I don’t think that the lawyer profession these days is doing much better when it comes to a positive public image, nor is the United States Congress – it is just a sign of the times.

I find that the only comfort I can get concerning this state of affairs in professional life is to talk to other mission-oriented professionals who have stayed the course, who have been educated, who have passed their required state and national examinations who have served their required internships, clerkships and apprenticeships, and who have GOTTTEN THEIR STATE LICENSE TO PRACTICE THEIR CHOOSEN PROFESSION and not circumvented the requirements that the rest of us had to successfully attain.  It gives me comfort to talk with these people who have stayed the course, because it places my sadness about the signs of the times in a better perspective.  Here is an example.  Following my trip to New Orleans for the deposition upon my return I spoke with a physician buddy of mine.  We both had gone to college in Boston at the same school and at the same time.  He is a mighty fine human being.

We sat in a bar, and I poured my soul out to him about my experience in New Orleans.  He patiently listened and then said a couple of comments that stuck with me.  One statement was “Well Todd, take heart, think what I feel like, after sixteen years in medical school and I get dressed down by some clerk at an insurance company.”  The next statement he made also struck me. He said:  “Our litigious society is eroding us by pieces, and we are so used to the lawyers just battling it out that we are numb to it, and personally I end up requiring needless medical test after needless medical test, just to cover my ass from being sued.”

There we are.  Insurance clerks are bossing around licensed physicians; purchase of pharmaceuticals can now be easily accomplished online without the assistance and expertise of a licensed pharmacist; and monks want to sell caskets.

I want to close by proving as best I can my opinion that there are now folks out in the world who are mighty interested in making money through funeral service, but are not in the least interested in actually doing the work.  In New Orleans I spontaneously in my deposition tossed out this question. “If the monks are interested in caskets, why don’t they just open up a licensed funeral home, I mean the Archdiocese of Denver did it a quarter of a century ago, and it is still in business.”  The looks I received made me feel foolish and that I must have had carrots growing out of my ears.  The message was clear – caskets yes, funeral service no.

In the end I feel that our rock solid foundation of funeral service is just that – service to other people.  The casket used to be part of that – but who knows what the future will hold concerning that issue? The profession is called “funeral service” not “funeral casket” and that is something that these days grounds me and gives me solid direction – service, service, service, service to others.

I drove home that evening, still sad that the monks and undertakers ended up in Federal Court, but thinking clearly after talking to my medical buddy “It could get worse.”  Only time will tell.  Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.  TVB


Amazing, Todd. But you also fail to mention that for Catholics, there is no funeral without a priest. These monks, many of whom are priests, I would dare to say are interested in certain aspects of providing funerals, and you and other directors, should be thankful for priests willing to assist you!

I have been in the cemetery and funeral industry for 22 years and have many friends who are licensed funeral directors, however I must say that after running multiple locations including seven funeral homes I disagree with alot of what you said. I saw first hand how families who were emotional and grieving were led to purchase over priced caskets. I learned first hand that the average mark up then was between 400-600% and the average cost was between 4000 to 6000$. The only place to purchase a casket was the funeral home and the consumer had no choice which I would hope you would agree is not good for the consumer in any industry. The average funeral is 10,000$ and up and a great percentage of that was the casket. So when the ftc changed the law allowing anyone to sell caskets it gave consumers choices which were never available to them and thats always a good thing. I believe the high cremation rate we are experincing now is partly because of the high cost of the funeral industry. Funeral homes sell vaults, memorials and other products that cemeteries also sell, so why would caskets be any different. I know you are a funeral director but surely you can't believe that you should be a licensed funeral director to sell a casket. Anyone who has been in our industry for any length of time cares about the families they serve and try to help them anyway possible. As far as getting up at 3am to do a transfer and removal, the funeral homes I managed contracted that out for the most part. Cemeterians have an ongoing relationship with the family's they serve that lasts years and years not weeks. Again I have the utmost respect for funeral directors but also the same for the cemeterians. I sell caskets generally for about half of what the family was used to paying and I am proud to know I helped a family with the most difficult purchase they will ever make and glad I was able to save them thousands of dollars. The family's thank me and are greatful for the caring way we handle the situation and have never had a complaint or remorse over their purchase which unfortunatly wasn't always the case when i managed funeral homes

Some great comments here. Also, be sure to read David Shipper's post responding to this:

Linda Budzinski

Many have tried, few have succeeded. My philisophy is that no one can provide a better quality casket than I can. If Monks or Costco, or someone selling branded caskets over the internet infringes on my business practices (and I rarely have seen 400% markups as stated in another comment, btw) i react simply and quickly. It may have been Alan Wolfert that said the public can handle much of their own funeral, but most refuse to remove, no one has a crematorium, and none can embalm. In reaction to those who might sell third party caskets 9-5 from a storefront, I suggest putting an extra $1500 (for instance) in non-declinable, removal, and embalming (divied out as seen fit), selling the first casket (s) at cost and reducing subsequent caskets by the $1500 I added into services. One might even sell below cost (with services). If we as an industry promote the value of the funeral, the value of viewing, and think a bit outside the box (no pun intended), we can all make a living. In times when net profits for funeral homes has dipped below 10% nationwide, we can act or react. Act, fellow funeral directors. Be happy if someone buys a Costco or internet casket, bring these people into your newly priced selection room, demonstrate their error tactfully, and the word will spread quickly. Legal action to allow or dis-allow casket sales by third party be damned, let them all eat cake. React rather than buy into the hugely profitable tort system where litigants all lose and lawyers always win.