As a member of the clergy for 19 years in Montgomery County, I have participated in more funeral services and burials than I can readily number. This part of my ministry, which has always been my honor and privilege to perform, generally requires me to work with funeral homes and cemeteries, which in turn has given me a unique window into how their practices have evolved over the past two decades. Overall, I do not like the changes that have taken place.
While some of the funeral homes and cemetaries I have worked with maintain a high level of ethical integrity and compassionate care, I have observed others increasingly using misleading and emotionally manipulative practices to steer the families of the deceased toward products and services they do not need, often disregarding the religious traditions of the family, in order to boost their profit margin.
The following are examples of such practices that I have personally observed.
Funeral Home Practices
Pre-Purchased Funeral Plans. Many funeral homes actively market pre-purchased funeral plans. Such plans do not generally result in significant savings for the family in real terms. In addition, many products and services may be excluded from the advance purchase and bought at going rates at the time of the funeral. However, such plans provide the funeral home with ready cash which they can invest until the time of the funeral, often for decades.
Embalming. Offering families the option of preserving their deceased loved one’s bodies until the funeral service through embalming without first inquiring as to the families’ religious traditions, which in most cases do not require it and in many cases actively discourage it. Embalming is seldom required by law. And funeral directors generally do not make the families aware that refrigeration at the funeral home is a perfectly adequate method of maintaining the deceased for the funeral.
Open Casket Funerals. Offering open casket viewing without reference to religious tradition can be problematic for the same reasons as embalming, but it does benefit the funeral home because those opting for open casket viewing must purchase cosmetic services, which would be unnecessary with a closed casket.
Stacking Services. Funeral directors have encouraged families to change the dates of services, claiming that the reason for doing so was for the benefit of the family (e.g., allowing more time for out of town guests to arrive), when it was really for the benefit of the funeral home (e.g., allowing them to schedule multiple simultaneous services in their various chapels, thus reducing staffing and other overhead expenses).
High-Priced Urns and Cremation Caskets. The least expensive cremation urns available from most funeral homes cost several hundred dollars, the most expensive more than a thousand. Cremation caskets (small caskets in which to place cremation urns) are a totally unnecessary invention of the funeral industry. In order to help the members of my congregation avoid these unnecessary costs, I purchase urns directly from a local ceramic store for well under $100 each.
Burial over Cremation. Despite the fact that cremation costs thousands of dollars less than burial and is considered perfectly acceptable in many religious traditions, funeral homes often subtly emphasize burial in their discussions with the family.
Casket Display. Placing the more expensive caskets in the most visible spots, close to the entrance to the display room, closer to eye level, more attractively displayed. While annoyingly commercial, this would not be quite so objectionable if the less expensive caskets were not usually displayed much less visibly or not at all (e.g., shown only in the funeral home’s product catalogue).
Metal Caskets. Offering families the option of better protecting the remains of their loved ones through the use of metal caskets, without first inquiring as to the families’ religious traditions, which in most cases do not seek the preservation of the body of the deceased, and often discourage it.
Sealed Caskets. This is one of the most egregious practices I have witnessed. For several hundred dollars additional cost, the family is offered a casket seal, again with the assumption that the family would want to preserve their loved one’s remains. However, sealing a casket actually has the opposite effect: activating anaerobic bacteria, accelerating the decomposition process, in many cases causing the casket to actually explode after the burial has taken place, and collapsing the gravesite. Precisely for this reason, many jurisdictions prohibit the burial of sealed caskets (though not their sale), and the vast majority of cemeteries require such seals to be broken before the casket is buried.
False Set-Ups. It has become the default practice at most cemeteries to dig the grave, then create a false gravesite 20-30 feet away at which to hold the burial ceremony. A small pavilion with chairs is set up for the family, along with an elaborate façade which looks like a real grave – complete with Astroturf-covered metal riser and the mechanism for lowering the casket – but is entirely non-functional. After the service, the family is encouraged to leave while grave workers move the casket and lower it into the real grave. This often happens even when I have conveyed to the funeral director and the cemetery staff that in our religious tradition, the casket is lowered into the grave in the sight of the mourners, who then cast handfuls of earth onto the casket. The reason given is generally safety: usually that rain has caused the ground to become unstable. But investigation on my part in the aftermath of the funeral has usually eliminated this rationale. The real reasons for false set-ups? For one thing, it’s more convenient for the cemetery if they can schedule their workers at will. Perhaps more importantly, each time the casket is moved the cemetery can charge for transporting it. Meanwhile, if the family’s religious tradition does involve the casket being lowered into the grave, and the family insists upon its wishes being carried out, this must be done in an awkward manner, and the family must look on from a distance while cemetery workers moving the casket to the real grave and lower it.
Inclined Plots. Cemeteries often market plots that are on an incline as being a more attractive (and thus more expensive) option. Unfortunately for those whose religious traditions require the lowering of the casket into the grave, this is rendered much more difficult, if not impossible, on an inclined surface. On one occasion, this was done after I explained our burial traditions to the cemetery operator, and because the family felt strongly about watching as the casket was lowered into the grave, a skip loader with block and tackle had to be brought in to do the lowering as the family watched.
I want to stress again that not all funeral homes and cemeteries engage in such practices. Some are perfectly honorable (it is to these funeral homes and cemetaries that I refer the members of my congregation when possible). None of the practices I have described here are illegal; many are just examples of today’s standard marketing practices being employed by funeral homes and cemeteries. Which only makes my point: The problem is not so much the practices themselves as the fact that they are often clothed in words of comfort and service to the families in their hour of need, when the real reason is the profitability of the business. I have no problem with business people earning a reasonable profit for what they do, as long as they are clear that they are running a business and not pretending to be something else. There is something wrong when bereaved families have to be as wary of many funeral homes and cemeteries as they have to be in used car dealerships.