Friday, September 22, 2006

The Business of Death

In 1997, my father passed away while I was living in Minnesota. When this happened, our whole family boarded a plane and returned to California. I had never dealt with death in our immediate family before this. In fact, I had never performed a funeral service up till this time - this would be my first. Unfortunately, my father had made few preparations before his passing - there was no will and no indication about his burial preferences; his finances, taxes and property debt had to be decifered by going through his paperwork. There was a life insurance policy that we eventually found that would help with the funeral expenses - I’m glad that we didn’t throw that box away.


The whole event was heart-wrenching; if I weren’t a Christian, it would have been crushing. Having to perform my father’s funeral without any assurance of his eternal state; having to sort through the maze of paperwork, receipts and files in order to determine his financial liabilities; and having to deal with a mortuary over the handling of his body - all of this was a rather bitter pill to swallow. With this experience I found that the prospect of having to do business with a mortuary can be particularly offensive. To be quite blunt here - when having to deal with the pain of death, the last thing that someone should have to do is do business with mortuary salespeople. What I experienced at the mortuary, I wasn’t at all prepared for. [In describing this event, I am not suggesting that all mortuaries are the same, or that there is no place for these services - however, I came to realize that it is important that people should be made aware of what they will probably face in the event of a death in their family]. I literally felt as though I had been transported into the worst sort of used car dealership imaginable. When I attended their “counseling session” on behalf of my deceased father, I was quickly presented with a list of options and packages for either burial or cremation. The timing of this meeting couldn’t have been better though. I had just come to the end of my research about my father’s financial standing, and realized that I would have to handle most of the out of pocket funeral expenses until the insurance premium could offer assistance. Because of this, I realized that we needed to be very frugal in our dealings with the mortuary. Thus, I was amazed at how easy it would have been to sign some papers, amidst the emotion of the moment, and find ourselves with a debt that would have been overbearing. That I recall, their “options” ranged anywhere from $4000.00 to well over $15,000.00 for a simple casket and burial - of course, the sky’s the limit if you want it to be.


What was also disturbing was the carefully crafted sales pitch that came with our “counselling session”; the eerie “Casket Room” with the special lighting; and the pressure of the salesman who would whisper things like, “Oh, but this would be a wonderful way to remember your father!” (as if to say - “anything less would be a disgrace”).


To make a long story short, I ended up getting some very good help from a friend who performs autopsies. This person warned me about doing business with the mortuary and helped me to understand that mortuaries typically veil your rights and freedoms when it comes to the transport and burial of a body, or even the spreading of cremains. But in order to understand what your individual rights are, you would need to contact your state’s Board of Funeral Service and read the local statutes which govern your area. Here is a website that has compiled such links for the United States: link.


As a note to pastors who may read this - this is an important thing to become aware of, especially when you experience a death of a member in your church (or one of their friends/ family members). If your church facilities includes an on-site burial ground, then you don’t need this counsel. For the rest of us who have to deal with off-site cemetaries etc, this is more needful.


As a pastor, the last thing you would want is to have your sheep being fleeced by a profit-hungry mortuary, especially when they are enduring the loss of a loved one.