Washington Report 062003

Date Published: 
Original Author: 
Patrick Downey
Original Publication: 
ICCFA Magazine

Perspective on Preneed: Be Careful What You Wish For—You Just Might Get It

by Patrick R. Downey, CCE, , ICFA President-Elect
Editor’s note: Due to the increasing debate in industry trade publications concerning possible federal legislation to address preneed issues, President-Elect Patrick R. Downey, CCE, offers this thoughtful essay.
First it was the horseless carriage, then microwave ovens and now preneed. Somebody stop the madness! Recently, various and sundry funeral industry publications have included articles decrying preneed planning for cemetery and funeral expenses as nothing short of greedy profiteering. "Evil" say some. "Unnecessary" say others. Why this sudden cacophony of criticism?
Is there any merit to be found within this symphony of specious spin? Or are we merely witnessing a new manifestation of the same pious "progressaphobia" that led to shouts of "Get a horse!" and "It’ll never fly!" in days gone by?
Timing is everything. Could it be that the sudden groundswell of disdain for a concept that consumers overwhelmingly embrace coincides with recent scrutiny of the death care industry by the federal government? And if so, to what end? An interesting notion to consider while The Pharisees of Funeraldom await the return of reverence for the rituals (and margins) of old is that current consumer trends point to a more urgent question: Can this profession afford not to encourage preneed?
Perhaps you may have noticed a family or two in your arrangement rooms who have just been "through the mill" of abject shock and estate liquidation caused by years of assisted care, nursing homes and hospital bills. Perhaps your directors have wondered about the indignation these people have shown for your General Price List. Why in the world would they forgo a fine ritual and a cameo rose for an immediate burial or direct cremation? Some might say they were not "educated."
I would submit that they are inundated and exasperated and we (the funeral home or cemetery) are last in line at the pay window. Their response to yet another expenditure they don’t fully comprehend: "We just want something simple and inexpensive."
Is this because they don’t wish to honor Mom’s or Dad’s wishes? Are they fundamentally opposed to a nicer funeral? No. More likely they are simply "tapped out," emotionally and financially. Ann Bastianelli of Anthology Consulting, also a researcher at Indiana University, estimates that as many as one-third of the families we see making funeral arrangements at time of need today have just gone through such an experience and this number is likely to increase steadily in the future.
As Don Potter observes in his perceptive book, "The 50+ Boomer":"This young-thinking ‘I can always make more money’ crowd is transitioning from being the ‘sandwich generation’ to that of the ‘caught in a vise generation.’ They don’t want to hear about not being ready for what may lie ahead, but they certainly need help with understanding, planning and implementing programs that can contribute to a more secure future."
So, what does this have to do with the "evils of preneed"? We need to realize that:
• the anxiously awaited "boomer boom" for the funeral industry hasn’t materialized due to an outbreak of health and longevity;
• the members of this group are less accepting of traditionalism and ritual; and
• they are likely to freak out as they watch their parents’ savings evaporate in the wake of retirement and health care expenses.
When we connect the dots, we may see that the future may bring—dare I say it—drastically lower funeral averages nationwide. Picture funeral director George Bailey from "It’s a Wonderful Life" running frantically down the streets of Pottersville searching for the now nonexistent spacious funeral chapel, pounding on the front door of Potter’s Cremation Nook and wondering where his familiar world has gone. OK, so that’s a little far-fetched, but the aforementioned trends are real.
In consideration of this likely future reality, wouldn’t it be comforting to have a vast majority of your future clients’ funerals already on file, fully funded, with expressed wishes for a fitting final tribute clearly spelled out and with monies structured in such a way as to be secure and protected until the day they are needed? So that on that day a confident and caring professional at the funeral home or the cemetery can smile reassuringly and say "It’s all taken care of."
Impossible, you say? Not at all. The fact is that thousands of honest, ethical and highly skilled professionals help hundreds of thousands of well-informed families design that experience for their loved ones every year. The ratio of unresolved complaints incurred from this service is minimal compared to that of other proud professions such as lawyers and doctors. Every day in America, funerals take place just as they were planned.
Recent anti-preneed articles seem to take the position that there is no such thing as "ethical" preneed, suggesting that the practice should be restricted or prohibited by law. The facts show that such a position is really a disservice to the public we serve and their best interests, in addition to ours.
So, if your business won’t offer preneed until pigs fly, you may miss the fact that it might save your bacon.