Mitford believed prices were high because the funeral industry was trying to sell the public the idea of "gracious dying," which she called absurd. To make her point, she listed coffins with beds that "lift and tilt," elaborate cosmetic embalming and burial vaults with precast asphalt liners surrounded by reinforced concrete.
"A new mythology, essential to the 20th-century American funeral rite, has been built up step-by-step," wrote Mitford. It's purpose, she said, was to justify the embalming, laying out of the body in an elaborate casket for viewing and visiting hours; hired hearses; dark-suited, soft-spoken "grief counselors."
"This is a tradition created by the funeral industry," says Carlson of FAMSA. "Traditionally, grandma was laid out in the front parlor and a group of women in the community would come in and help. ...
"We lost the common lore of what to do at a time of death at the turn of the century, when funerals moved from the home to the funeral home," says Carlson. Her organization monitors the funeral industry with the help of its 100-plus member societies across the country. Based in Hinesburg, Vt., along with its sister organization, Funeral Consumers Alliance, FAMSA carries on much of the educational work Mitford started.
One of the things Carlson and her colleagues question about the industry is its emphasis on embalming. In no part of the world except America is it widely used, she says. In Western Europe, few families choose embalming and funerals' costs show it. In England, a funeral costs $1,650, according to Carlson, and in France, $2,200.
"Most people would never choose embalming if they knew what was involved," says Carlson. "And in France, or in Europe, it would be considered absolutely gauche to put makeup on a dead body."
Walkinshaw of the funeral directors says, however, that embalming began gaining popularity during the Civil War. Under orders from President Abraham Lincoln, embalmers were sent to the battlefields, where they embalmed bodies so they could be shipped back to their families. The practice continued after the war.
Embalming is required by law only in very limited circumstances -- when there is extended time between death and disposition or when transportation by rail or air make it necessary, for instance. Its main purpose, according to Mitford, is "to make the corpse presentable for viewing in a suitably costly container."
That vision of the deceased, made lifelike and resting in the casket, has become "the whole focus of the funeral," says Carlson. "The 'beautiful memory picture' is presented as the purpose of the funeral industry." She finds the idea offensive. "When people go to a viewing with an open casket, most of them are not there to peek at a dead body; they are there to show support for the family."
Walkinshaw agrees only to a point. "This is nothing that the funeral directors dreamt up," he says. "This was simply what the consumers said they wanted." He believes families gain "quite a peace of mind seeing a body that has been embalmed ... it gives them the opportunity to say goodbye to someone who may look much more like their mother or father than they did the last time they saw them" in the hospital or nursing home. Other alternatives are growing, however. The percentage of families opting for cremation is now 23 percent.
Caskets the biggest cost
The Rev. Henry Wasielewski of Phoenix, founder of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, says, "People are paying at least twice as much as they need to. They ought to be paying no more than $2,200."
Most of the cost, says the Roman Catholic priest, is for the casket, which he contends is frequently marked up 300 to 500 percent. To give consumers "some bargaining power," he publishes a list of caskets with color pictures and wholesale prices. His efforts have not been welcomed by the funeral industry.
Wasielewski, who has spent the past 20 years trying to protect grieving families, oversees a hotline for consumers (602-253-6814), provides advice, information and his research online (www.xroads.com/-funerals) and has founded Good Shepherd Funeral Service to provide a low-cost alternative to funeral homes for people in Phoenix.
Wasielewski is convinced that U.S. mortuaries charge high prices "because there are five to 10 times too many of them."
On average, he says, the 23,000 U.S. mortuaries arrange 100 funerals per year. Some funeral homes, of course, do far more business than that; others perform fewer than 25 funerals per year.
In most industries that kind of competition would keep prices low or force some owners out of business, says Wasielewski. Not so with the funeral industry. Funeral directors inflate prices to cover costs because they know grieving families won't be comparison shopping, he says.
Carlson accuses the industry similarly, as does Marion Nentwig, the Episcopal chair of the Memorial Society in Chattanooga. "There's a strong family tradition of going to your local funeral director and don't ask any questions ... so we have to combat ignorance."
Funeral director Walkinshaw finds their reasoning unfair and says a traditional funeral takes 60 person hours of work. "If you had a death in your family, would you like to call the funeral home and have them tell you, 'Well, we're booked up for the next two weeks, but in two weeks we can take you'?"
"Some of the critics think we should be running charities, but unfortunately that doesn't keep our doors open," says Walkinshaw.
The advocates point to the trend toward corporate ownership of what had been independent, locally owned mortuaries as another cause of escalating costs.
Almost 20 percent of the country's funeral homes are now owned by one of three big conglomerates: Service Corporation International (SCI), Loewen Group or Stewart Enterprises. One in nine is thought to be owned by SCI of Houston. In most cases, these corporate owners keep their purchases secret and buy a number of homes in the same area while maintaining the name and staff of the purchased home. The public is kept unaware that a trusted local institution has changed hands, the advocates say. Massachusetts passed a law in 1998 against the practice and now requires that funeral home ownership be printed on all signs and print material.
"SCI, the largest of the conglomerates, has bought more than 3,000 funeral homes [in this country]," says advocate Wasielewski. "The second largest is Loewen Group of British Columbia. They bought up, in the United States, more than 1,000 mortuaries ... The third is Stewart Enterprises of Louisiana."
"What happens is, as soon as one of these chains enters a city, they often double prices the next day, with no change in staff, services or anything else. They just say other mortuaries have not been charging what a funeral is really worth." That, of course, leads the other funeral parlors to raise their prices, too, he says.
Carlson says that the "basic fee," the standard charge funeral homes bill to cover staff and overhead costs, tends to rise every six months after a funeral home is purchased. She writes in her book that "in 1996, the industry reported that the 'average' charge for the 'basic' fee was $1,025. In 1993, Laurel Land in Fort Worth, Texas, charged $1,198. By 1996, this now Stewart-owned mortuary had upped it to $1,995."
"People need to understand that the funeral chains ... are engaging in hard-sell tactics," says Carlson. "Frankly ... they are fighting over dead bodies in most states."
"The great majority of complaints that come into the FAMSA office," says Carlson, "have to do with dealings at chain outfits -- from complete lack of sensitivity and questionable tactics to shocking prices, the least reported of which are happening at cemeteries."
Cemeteries are being bought up by the chains as well and, as a result, a number of new and aggressive marketing strategies are emerging, according to Carlson. People who purchased their plots years ago and even paid in advance for their markers are being called later by the chain and informed of additional costs. Sometimes this happens two or three years in a row. Families find sales people at their door or on their phone lines with slick spiels about "pre-need" contracts that "lock in the price" to beat inflation.
The AARP's consumer specialist Adrienne Oleck warned last year in the organization's bulletin that "Americans 50 and older ... are being bombarded with aggressive marketing tactics by funeral homes and cemeteries."
"People need to be extremely suspicious of anybody who contacts them, whether by mail or phone," says Carlson.