On “Death: It’s a Living”

You may or may not know that I’m a funeral professional. In November I will be a licensed Funeral Director in the state of Arkansas, having joined the business my wife’s family has owned and operated since 1969.

How does a political science major end up working in a funeral home? Since I began working here, I’ve found the funeral industry to be one with the greatest potential to impact someone’s life. As much (or more) ministry occurs under our roof as under the steeples of many churches.

That’s why I was dismayed to hear about CNBC’s special “Death: It’s a Living”. You would think that a look at our business would be a good thing, and I’m confident enough to offer anyone a behind-the-scenes look at our business. (Seriously. E-mail me.) The simple fact is that not all funeral establishments operate to our standards. Not every Funeral Director has a heart to serve families.

And the media is scandal-hungry.

Here are a few observations about “Death: It’s a Living”.

1. Funeral Back-Biting. Sure, some funeral homes operate as though we live in the early 1900s. Heck, some of them still operate as though we live in the mid-1800s! But “modern” funeral providers offering unique services outside the walls of a funeral home seemed to be highly critical of funeral homes. What is amazing to me is that most of these services deride funeral homes for “exorbitant” charges but themselves charge thousands of dollars for peripheral services such as rocketing cremated remains into space or creating coral reefs with them.

2. Discounting Funeral Directors’ Expertise. I know some people (some entire firms, really) in the industry who are burnt out or do not offer their hearts in conjunction with their services to families. But the majority of the Funeral Directors I work with are incredibly compassionate. They are expert concierges, as a Funeral Director in the show put it. They are excellent event planners. They are also experts when it comes to the care of living people and dead bodies. Which brings us to the next point…

3. Seeing Your Loved One. The “critic” in the series seemed skeptical about the value of seeing a loved one after he or she has passed away. Leading grief experts (see: Alan Wolfelt, et al.) agree that seeing a loved one after his or her death is essential to a healthy grieving process. By the way, I’ve helped almost 100 families over this past year; every single family who has viewed their loved one has commented about its importance in helping them cope at many stages in the grieving process.

4. Caskets. The special generalized casket prices to an extreme level. In fact, the reporter said casket sales were the “bread and butter” of funeral home profits. Some caskets are even marked up as much as (gasp!) 100%. A 100% markup is not even close to regular retail rates and markups (on the low side). Additionally, casket sales are neither the bread nor the butter in most business models. In fact, a well-run funeral home should balance casket sale profits with service charges to meet operating expenses and produce a modest profit. As a final point, casket prices in our funeral home range from $895 to $13,000. I don’t know of a single time we’ve sold the most expensive casket, and a majority of our caskets are sold for about $1,995, as opposed to what’s presented as the norm by CNBC.

It’s not that the CNBC special was all bad; some parts were interesting even for someone in the funeral profession. It’s just exhausting dedicating my life and making family sacrifices to do my heart’s work with grieving families only to be continually demonized by a scandal-hungry media machine.

If you want to see the funeral profession at its finest, find a reputable family-owned business during the summer and spend some time getting to know your friendly neighborhood Funeral Director.

Questions? I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments.

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