The Mourning After: Funeral Home Rip-Offs (cont.)

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“In some cases, [Canadian funeral homes] have put in reception rooms and cafes and offer food services to client families in order to bring in what they call ‘replacement revenue,’” Nixon tells Consumers Digest.

Smaller, independent funeral homes have embraced this approach for years by providing customized concierge services that are tailored to the lives of the deceased. In 2013, Biggins enlisted a body shop to paint a casket to look like a school bus for a longtime local bus driver. The metal casket used normally would have retailed for $1,100, Biggins says. The additional cost “to make it special” was $750.

Biggins also coordinated a funeral procession for “Sonny,” who was the town’s ice cream man, in which the hearse and other vehicles followed behind his iconic truck. During the church service, Biggins sent his staff to buy surprise popsicles. After the burial, attendees were invited back to Sonny’s truck for one last treat.

Fortunately, using Sonny’s truck and providing guests with popsicles didn’t cost the family anything extra, Biggins explains.

Even corporate giants are rethinking their sales strategies in response to the fact that consumers are turning to caterers and event venues when they plan a memorial service for a cremated loved one. (What’s good news is that, unlike the rampant price inflation that we found with respect to weddings, we found that caterers typically don’t inflate prices for funerals and memorials.)

In October 2016, we joined 200 Service Corporation International (SCI) employees at Olinger Hampden Mortuary for a mock funeral. As guests flooded through the doors, they were handed a scorecard for disc-golf (the deceased’s favorite sport) and were asked to sign a guest book that was made of four white disc-golf discs. A caterer served hamburgers and french fries in brown paper bags. Every corner of the building was equipped with the deceased’s belongings: camping tools, an Iowa State University blanket, disc-golf gear and a worn snowboard.

The mock funeral served as a launch party for Life Well Celebrated, which is SCI’s marketing initiative to become a one-stop shop for customers who want to host celebratory memorials.

“Families have been going this direction for a long time but didn’t know where to go to get it done,” says Tim Williams of SCI, which is the largest provider of funeral services in North America. SCI hopes that by offering these a la carte services under one roof, it will recoup some of the business that has been lost to outside vendors.

TECH-SAVVY SEND-OFFS. Biggins and 12 other funeral directors and industry experts whom we interviewed say social media and technology increasingly influence how final farewells are carried out. Funeral homes now provide digital guest books, video tributes and slideshows and live webcasts of funeral services, but experts tell us that these services represent only minor revenue streams for most funeral homes, and their prices aren’t required on the GPL, per the Funeral Rule.

“Technology has definitely influenced the end-of-life space, from the actual funeral-planning process to grief and memorialization,” says Jessica Koth of NFDA.

Live-streaming of funerals began in the mid-1990s, but it slowly gained momentum over the past decade. In October 2012, Mathew Ingram live-tweeted his friend’s funeral. Ingram believed that his friend, who was an avid Twitter user and public-relations veteran, would have gotten a kick out of it.

“Not only did many of Michael’s friends thank me for doing it, but members of his family who live in Ireland and elsewhere also said how much they appreciated me posting details of the service,” Ingram says. However, a few who found it distasteful or disrespectful reacted with a combination of disapproval and shock, he adds.

Live-streaming of funerals is growing slowly, because the medium is rife with issues from privacy to interruptions in the feed, Nixon says.

Funeral homes also are seeing increased demand for sustainable funeral services, such as biodegradable caskets, clothing and shrouds instead of concrete vaults and embalming. Biodegradable caskets typically cost $500–$2,000, while conventional caskets typically cost $2,000–$10,000.

As of press time, alkaline hydrolysis, which uses heat, water and an alkali solution of potassium hydroxide to dissolve the body instead of burning the body during a typical cremation, was permitted in 11 states (Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon and Wyoming). Bone fragments are retained in a form that’s similar to cremated ashes, while other body components are reduced to a liquid solution of amino acids, peptides, soaps and sugars that can be disposed of safely through sewage systems.

Experts say alkaline hydrolysis uses one-seventh of the energy that’s required for a traditional cremation. Prices vary among providers, but in general, experts tell us that it costs the same as does cremation.

Lindsay Tucker has written for Boston magazine and Newsweek, among others.

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