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MelissaBPhD's podcast


Oct 18, 2022

Death, dying and the funeral business are all inevitable parts of life that we will all deal with at some point - either for ourselves or someone we love. 

I had a fascinating conversation a few months ago with someone who had been training to become a mortician. As someone who has helped families navigate end-of-life care for nearly my entire career, I hadn’t really ever thought about what happened when my job ended. Much of what this person shared with me bothered me but was also eye-opening – so I wanted to share some of that information with you.

Thousands of people have dealt with funeral costs in light of the pandemic, and today I’ll share some things I learned about the funeral industry in this week’s episode of This is Getting Old: Moving Towards an Age-Friendly World.

Key points covered in this episode: 

✔️ The Funeral Industry Pulls In Big Bucks

The costs for burial and cremation are skyrocketing. Most funeral homes are privately owned, but large corporations are starting to own more and more funeral homes.
 
Here’s a fun fact…funeral homes pull in $20 billion dollars a year in the United States.  Yes, BILLION.
 
The largest death-care corporation in the country, Service Corporation International, has nearly 2,000 locations. In 2018 alone, they brought in $3B in revenue. The second largest funeral company, StoneMor Partners, pulled in $316M in the same year.
 
We also have a growing monopoly on our hands due to fewer large, corporate parent companies. These large corporations have bought up the trusted, well-known family-owned businesses. They typically keep the name of the original business but bring in new staff and salespeople, and often increase prices. These large corporations can do this because there isn’t a lot of competition. This means fewer wealthy and powerful corporations manage this industry.
 
✔️ The Funeral Industry Is Poorly Regulated

This big, wealthy industry has been largely left to regulate itself. Businesses in the industry have a history of committing widespread deceptive practices that limit a consumers’ ability to make informed decisions
 
Some attempts have been made to fix this, starting in 1984 when the Funeral Rule was introduced. The Federal Trade Commission established this rule to protect vulnerable families from exploitation by licensed funeral homes. Funeral homes can be fined up to $40K each if they violate this rule.
 
The problem is there’s a loophole. Suppose a funeral home is found to be in violation of the Funeral Rule. In that case, they can opt into the Funeral Rule Offenders Program – a training program run by the industry’s largest trade association and lobbying group – the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). This organization then is responsible for “policing” and penalizing offending businesses and is ultimately able to conceal violations from public knowledge. 
 
✔️ Profit-Seeking + Poor Regulation = Predatory Practices

Since 1970, we have known that funeral homes have used predatory practices to increase profits. When you need a funeral home, the consumer is often not in the right frame of mind to handle the logistics of a funeral, burial, or cremation. Funeral homes have been known to prey on the emotionality of bereaved family members making funeral decisions by offering “up charges" for products or services that give the appearance of a higher quality funeral or burial. 

When we as individuals do this type of planning for our families in advance, we are giving them a huge blessing when we die. Leaving your funeral planning to loved ones can evoke a lot of intense emotions; and the multiple decisions that have to be made may have conflicting answers within a family that causes unnecessary stress during an already stressful time. 

✔️ Historically, Price Transparency Non-Existent In The Funeral Industry
 
One thing that isn’t transparent is the price tag associated with funeral and burial or cremation – the price for the same service can range from a few thousand dollars to over ten thousand.

The Funeral Rule doesn’t require funeral homes to provide prices upfront or online, which means the general public has a hard time protecting itself from predatory pricing practices.
 
NFDA disclosed in 2021 that the average cost of a funeral with a viewing and burial is nearly $8,000, while a funeral with cremation costs only about $1,000 less. However, these costs don’t include costs associated with the cemetery, monument, marker, or other miscellaneous costs, such as flowers. These added expenses often increase the cost of full funeral services by $2,000 or $3,000.
 
And this really shocked me!  Caskets are often marked up 300 to 500%! 

Caskets from a wholesaler cost about $325, but a funeral home sells it to you for about $1300!! Other markups are crazy and predatory – for example, selling people a premium sealed casket for $800 when it only means adding an $8 rubber seal to the lid (I mean, why does a casket need a seal anyways?!). 

And here’s a fun fact – the Funeral Rule allows YOU to provide your casket for a funeral – and the funeral home is  not allowed to charge an extra fee if you do! You can literally buy your casket from a wholesaler or make your own. (Talk about a DIY project I’ve never heard of before!)
 
✔️ Funerals Are Bad for The Environment

This information was also interesting. Some in the funeral industry are “going green”. Why? Because according to National Geographic, funerals put over 800K gallons of formaldehyde into the earth – equivalent to one and a quarter Olympic-sized swimming pools yearly.

And cremation, while touted as being the “greener” alternative to burial, generates an estimated 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide – per person.

There was a lot more information online about planning a “green funeral” that I didn’t go into in this episode. It has given me reason to pause and reconsider my own advance directive about wanting to be cremated. If you have already explored this option, drop a comment below or on social media. I’m interested in learning more!
 
✔️ Where To Find Help With Your Funeral Option? 

Funeralocity is a platform to find and compare all funeral homes and cremation services near you. AARP names the service provider as its latest funeral planning recommendation.

If you have questions, comments, or need help, please feel free to drop a one-minute audio or video clip and email it to me at melissabphd@gmail.com, and I will get back to you by recording an answer to your question. 

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About Melissa Batchelor, PhD, RN, FNP, FGSA, FAAN:

I earned my Bachelor of Science in Nursing ('96) and Master of Science in Nursing ('00) as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) School of Nursing (SON). I genuinely enjoy working with the complex medical needs of older adults. I worked full-time for five years as FNP in geriatric primary care across many long-term care settings (skilled nursing homes, assisted living, home, and office visits), then transitioned into academic nursing in 2005, joining the faculty at UNCW SON as a lecturer. I obtained my PhD in Nursing and a post-master's Certificate in Nursing Education from the Medical University of South Carolina College of Nursing ('11). I then joined the faculty at Duke University School of Nursing as an Assistant Professor. My family moved to northern Virginia in 2015 which led to me joining the George Washington University (GW) School of Nursing faculty in 2018 as a (tenured) Associate Professor. I am also the Director of the GW Center for Aging, Health, and Humanities.

Please find out more about her work at https://melissabphd.com/.