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Metro Pulse Grave Decisions

Following tradition, many families choose expensive funerals. Critics say they're being overcharged.

By Joe Tarr

AUGUST 23, 1999:  When her father died in July, the last thing Ramona Buttry wanted to do was step inside a stuffy, somber funeral home. Nor did she want his family and many friends filing by his remains, noticing the color of his skin, the suit he'd wear to his grave, the meticulous placement of each hair. And she didn't want a minister who knew little about the man most called "Big Don" explaining the meaning of his life.

"I'm not afraid of death or dying, I just don't agree with how many people deal with the aftermath," she says. "We should rejoice among our tears and be thankful that we have good times to remember, for that is all we have left."

A traditional funeral—complete with open casket visitation hours, funeral service, graveside ceremony, flowers, pallbearers, hearse, procession—can easily run more than $8,000 these days. It's not the price tag that bothered Ramona Buttry—she simply finds it distasteful. Instead, she opted for a personal, simple graveside service.

Americans aren't known for dealing with death well. But when the day does arrive, there is a billion-dollar industry that steps in to take over, often sweeping grieving friends and relatives along for the solemn ritual. Today, some people question whether these businesses are acting in the best interest of the mourners. "This is a real scummy business and every mortician in the United States is a criminal," says inexpensive funeral crusader Fr. Henry Wasielewski, who heads the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee. The group, based in Arizona, is trying to expose the industry, analyzing costs and sales techniques, and advocating for consumers.

It's easy of course to label funeral directors and others who make their living off of death and sorrow as greedy and heartless. But there is a need for the services they provide, and many do it well. But are they taking advantage of people along the way, and how do you know whether you're getting your money's worth?

Following Tradition

Bonnie Vinyard didn't have to think much about what to do when she lost her husband of 52 years. The couple had already planned for it. For about $13,000, they had bought three funerals ahead of time—one each for themselves, and one for Glyn Vinyard's brother. "My husband was a good organizer. He was trying to make it easier on me. Most couples don't want to talk about it. He was protecting me," she says, sitting in her sunroom where she plays her organ.

After several years of heart problems, Glyn Vinyard passed away Jan. 2, 1995. Her husband was embalmed, laid out in a classic oak casket that was already paid for. The obituary was written out and on file at the funeral Home. Some 400 people came to a Chapman Highway mortuary one night for visitation. Then, after a graveside service, he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery. When Bonnie—who is almost 75—dies, she will be buried next to her husband.

Handling all of these arrangements and making sure the day went smoothly for her was Berry Funeral Home on Chapman Highway. Vinyard says she couldn't be happier with the way Berry's treated her.

The memorial service comforted Vinyard. But the adjustment afterward was hard. "I carried on, trying to be as normal as possible. [Friends and family] crowd around you with all the love and attention at the funeral, and then they're gone," she says. She had to get used to living alone in a big, empty house in Seymour. Eventually, she sold it and bought a smaller one in South Knoxville. There were financial matters that had to be straightened out—the couple owned and operated Vinyard Floor Covering and Carpet on North Broadway. "I knew for 10 years that man was going to die, but it was still a shock," she says. "The adjustment is terrible."

Vinyard volunteered at the hospital and at her church. But she credits Berry's with helping her keep going. The funeral home's counselors checked up on her after the death. She also joined two of the mortuary's support groups, which gave her a chance to talk with other widows and widowers, have picnics and take trips to Gatlinburg and Asheville. "We've used them since 1945. Berrys are considered family to everyone in South Knoxville. I think they'd be hurt if you were to go to Roses or somewhere else," she says. "They don't just put you in the ground today and pass you by if they see you in the grocery store—they don't do that."

One of the larger mortuaries in the city, Berry's arranges some 600 death services each year, and buries 1,200 people in its four cemeteries.

Like many funeral directors, Fred Berry III can trace the roots of his profession back through his family tree. His great-grandfather started Berry Funeral Home in 1928 in the old South Knoxville Church Building on Island Home.

Fred Berry was planning on becoming a doctor, not a mortician. But when his uncle died in 1986, he stepped in to help the business continue. In 1992, the family decided to join with Service Corporation International—the largest funeral company in the country—though the staff remains the same and the home is for the most part still managed locally. The majority of mortuaries remain independent, though a growing number are being absorbed by larger companies like SCI. Berry says his family joined with the company because the changing industry is becoming more competitive, and because it is getting tougher to hand the business over from generation to generation.

The addition of support groups and counselors—which clients can use for free—is an attempt to go beyond the typical services, and really help people, Berry says. "Most people in the funeral business look at it like it's not just a job, it's a ministry," Berry says. "It's a heart-felt desire to help people through a difficult time. For most funeral directors, it's more than pay because of the hours that are involved."

While Berry portrays the business in a favorable light, not everyone sees it that way. Craig Brown, who owns Funeral Directions, says he started his business in part because he was disgusted with the industry and wanted to do something different. Many people who work in the business are petty and viscous, he says. "Everyone's jealous of everyone else. Family members don't want their employees to succeed. There's always backstabbing to get ahead," he says. "If I knew what I know now, it's not a profession I would have chosen."

Brown says he charges 50 percent less than other mortuaries. One thing that allows him to keep costs low is that he doesn't really own a funeral home. Funeral directors in Tennessee are required to have an office, but Brown rarely works in his, which is a rented room at the Halls Memorial Gardens cemetery. For the most part, he visits people in their homes to make arrangements. "People feel more comfortable in their homes. It's not as much of a threat to them. I make friends with most of the families I serve." Most of the services he oversees are held at churches or graveside.

"I'm kind of the black sheep here," Brown says. "I've worked for most of the firms in town, some of them twice, and was never happy.

"None of my colleagues like what I'm doing. They absolutely detest me. My concept is, I do everything possible to save folks money."

The Cost of Dying

It is difficult to get an average price range for the cost of a funeral. Although funeral homes are required to provide their service costs to the public, they hesitate to say what families usually end up paying for an entire funeral. There are simply too many variations for there to be any meaningful average, they say.

The national average for traditional funerals is about $4,800, according to David Walkinshaw, spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association (an industry group that promotes funeral homes) and a Massachusetts mortician.

But Wasielewski, of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, is highly skeptical of that figure. He says it is not based on scientific survey, but is concocted and padded to make people think they're getting a deal if they pay $4,700 for a funeral. The committee has been following and lambasting the funeral business for years. Working with a mortician in Arizona, the group started Ideal Mortuary, providing low-cost funerals, which still make a profit for the funeral director. The price range for a full funeral service, complete with embalming, visitation, service, casket and burial is $1,400 to $2,200, he says. "There's no reason anyone should be paying more than that."

Harold McCurdy with the East Tennessee Memorial Society—a non-profit group that encourages and advocates for simple, low-cost funerals—agrees that funerals need not cost a fortune.

Every two years, the society surveys 120 East Tennessee funeral homes to find out what their lowest cost prices are for burials (which include removal of body from the home, the basic services of staff, the lowest cost casket, and the transfer of the body to cemetery) and cremations (which includes removal of the body from the home, basic services of the staff, cheapest cremation container, transfer of the body to crematory and cremation).

The 1997 study (1999's isn't done yet) found base prices for funerals ranged from $795 (Robinson Funeral Service in Kingsport) to $3,560 (Brown Funeral Home in Newport). The majority were less than $2,000. Cremations were $500 to $1,795. Of course, these funeral homes all offer much more expensive services as well. (And, McCurdy notes, "There are substantial changes from one year to the next at a given funeral home, and we don't understand why these changes occur.")

Berry's traditional funeral packages—which include service, casket, outer burial container, flowers and other miscellaneous items—range from $6,300 for steel caskets to $8,200 for cherry hardwood caskets. However, the home also offers inexpensive funerals starting for a little under $1,000.

Brown charges about $3,000 for his standard funerals, he says. Even at that, his expenses are only about a third of what he charges, he says. "If I make $2,000 on a traditional funeral, [funeral homes] are probably making $4,000 to $6,000," Brown says. "Of course, their overhead is more than mine, so it may not be that high. But I can do a funeral a month and survive. That's one of the reasons I like this business."

Berry wouldn't say what kind of profit margin his home makes on funerals. However, the National Funeral Directors Association says the average is about 9 percent. But again, Wasielewski says that figure is misleading. The problem is there are too many funeral homes, spreading the business too thin.

"There are many mortuaries around that have only a body or two a month. If they have two, they have to put two weeks' expenses on one person," he says. "The fact is, [that home] ought to be out of business. They should all be out of business. There's no dentist that can stay in business if he only has two patients a week. These guys screw every family in order to make a living."

Berry says that funeral home profits are dropping because it's an unattractive business that takes a lot of money to operate. "The profit margin has decreased each year because it's more expensive to operate. The pool of available employees is less. It's not a high-paying industry.

"Ten years ago, you would work long hours seven days a week. It'd be nothing to work a 70-hour week and spend three nights at the funeral home. Today, employees aren't going to work long hours like my father and grandfather did—there are too many other opportunities."

The increasing popularity of cremations—which are cheaper than traditional burials—has also lead to lower profits, he says.

The Loewen Group funeral company recently declared bankruptcy and is undergoing a reorganization. But on the whole, funeral homes continue to do well.

The website for Service Corporation International (the company that Berry Funeral Home is part of) has a section titled "Why Our Future Looks So Bright." Underneath, is the cheery news that "According to U.S. Bureau of Census projections, the annual number of deaths in America will increase by more than 61 percent by the year 2030. Through an aggressive expansion program, SCI is preparing for this increase. The company continues to grow by acquiring established funeral service businesses and building new branches in cities where increasing funeral needs are indicated."

Tricks of the Trade

The biggest cost—and where most funeral homes make their profit—is the coffin. "[Funeral directors] are trained to sell our highest price casket because that's where most of the money's made," Brown says.

Funeral directors mark up low end caskets about double, he says. But medium end units are marked up as much as 10 times. Directors push their customers to buy the more expensive models. Brown says they'll use sales pitches like, "This casket will protect you forever," and says funeral directors will push "sealer unit" coffins, which are designed to keep the elements out (which aside from being of dubious value, may not even be the case—some of these caskets merely end up "exploding" in the vault, because of the build-up in pressure).

Wasielewski reports even more insidious tactics. Funeral homes often keep lower-priced caskets stocked in the most hideous colors. Sometimes, the same model casket in a nicer color will cost a lot more. "They jack up the price by $3,000 if you want a color other than ugly." Or morticians will keep cheap ones dusty or smudged to get people to buy a more expensive one.

Other tricks that morticians employ, Wasielewski and other critics say, include convincing people who will cremate relatives into embalming them anyway; telling families that embalmings are required (they're not); and selling expensive wooden cremation containers—the box a body is burned in—when a simple cardboard box will suffice. Funeral directors are required to keep a price list for their services and products, but some will keep several different lists—and use the one that seems to fit their customer's economic bracket, Wasielewski says.

"Mortuaries have found that they can charge anything they want because people don't know what prices ought to be. You would never buy a $10 tomato. But people don't know what a casket should cost," he says. "Most people who buy a funeral have never bought one before. They've all bought tomatoes and gas before, but they have no idea how to buy a casket. They don't know what kind of tricks can be used on them."

Local funeral directors deny that they're duping customers. "Rose Mortuary has always tried to keep all services affordable," says Skip Wheeler, of the North Broadway Funeral Home—the largest in the city. "I can't speak for everybody. But that's not the way we do business."

Berry agrees that funeral homes make most of their profit on the coffins, but says that's an artificial structure. "A funeral home knows what profit it wants to make. It can charge that through the services they offer or merchandise. The public has become less receptive of high profit margins on caskets. Those prices will be taken out of caskets and put into services."

Putting more value on services than merchandise is probably better for the industry, anyway, he says. "I would much rather sit here and talk about our services than try to sell you the most expensive caskets," he says.

New Competition

With publicity about the high cost of coffins, niche stores have popped up trying to sell caskets for much less than funeral homes. In Knoxville, the Casket Store opened its doors on Kingston Pike on May 3. A week later, it was ordered to stop selling caskets by the state Funeral Board. In Tennessee, you have to be a licensed funeral director to sell such funeral merchandise.

To become a funeral director, you must apprentice for two years under a funeral director and then pass a state test, or you must attend an accredited school for a year, apprentice for a year, and then pass the state exam, says Arthur Giles, executive director of the state's Funeral Board. The board oversees the licensing process, reviews complaints about funeral homes, and regulates the business.

Angela Brent, owner of the Casket Store, says federal law says you only need a funeral director's license if you're providing funeral services, not merchandise. She plans to fight the funeral board's ruling in court. In the meantime, she sold her coffins to a store in Florida, and is acting as a showroom until it is resolved. If customers want to buy one of the coffins she has, they call a toll free number and buy it over the phone, and it's theirs. The Casket Store also sells urns, pet caskets, grave markers, and other funeral merchandise.

Brent says since she's not handling bodies, there's no reason why she should need a license. Instead, people are being cheated because of the way the law is set up, she says. "The consumers are taken advantage of at a very stressful time."

"Funeral directors play on people's emotions," she adds. "It's been a very lucrative business for several years, and they're not ready for competition. No one's ever given them any competition before."

One casket that she was offering for $2,300 was being sold by a Morristown funeral home for $4,100, she says. "If we're making a profit at this price, common sense tells you their difference is all profit."

Giles claims that the law is set up to protect consumers. When people buy funeral arrangements ahead of time from a funeral home, all the money must be placed in an insurance or trust fund. The funeral directors can't touch it until the person dies. But with a casket store, there is no guarantee the store will deliver the casket at the time of death—say, if the store should go out of business.

Giles says people may need to buy more than just a casket (such as a container, which the casket is set in at the cemetery) and aren't told about it. Though these may be legitimate consumer concerns, forbidding places like the Casket Store from doing business seems a draconian way of dealing with them.

Brent says that the board isn't trying to protect anyone but funeral directors. The seven-member Funeral Board has six funeral directors on it, and one non-funeral director—an inherent conflict of interest, she says. "It's a very self-serving industry," Brent says. "You can't regulate yourself and be fair."

Asked whether he saw a conflict of interest in the board's structure, Giles says, "All the boards that I'm aware of are set up that way. There's industry representation on the board, and there's consumer representation. If it's going to be changed, the legislature has to change it."

While local funeral directors say they're not worried about the Casket Store hurting their business, it does not appear to be well thought of.

"Parasites," says Fred Adomat, owner of East Tennessee Mortuary Service, an embalming service (see sidebar). "They don't give a funeral home a fair chance of performing with the overhead they need. A lot of the profit is built into the casket but that profit is spent on the light bills and the funeral cars. If the casket stores remain, it's going to be extremely difficult for the funeral homes to stay in business."

Low-Cost Alternatives

When the 78-year-old McCurdy dies, his body will be given to the University of Tennessee Medical Center for research. "My wife and I don't put much value on our bodies," says McCurdy, of the East Tennessee Memorial Society.

His family will be able to organize a memorial service if they want, but they know that McCurdy prefers the simple over the elaborate and expensive. As part of the Memorial Society, McCurdy encourages people to have services that will help them deal with grief, rather than merely following tradition or guilt.

"Many people are finding that a simple service centered around church is more satisfactory than most popular practices," he says. "Some churches have established memorial gardens—places set aside and dedicated to internment of cremation remains. They make these available on a low-cost basis."

The fact is, few people really know what options they have when arranging a funeral. For instance, embalming is not required. In fact, families don't even need to hire a funeral director, Brown says. With a permit from the county, they can fill out their family member's death certificate and arrange their own service and burial (provided the cemetery will allow it).

"People need to realize they do have choices when they're planning a funeral," says Phil Groos, chaplain of Baptist Hospital's Hospice Center. "Some people get into this thinking they need to do the more traditional, and the traditional can be more expensive.

"Often, when I'm working with people, I tell them to keep in mind that the funeral is more for the survivors, than the person who died."

Although more people are questioning the cost and type of funerals they have, Brown doubts that traditional funeral homes will ever be endangered.

"Americans are unwilling to accept death. It's a small percentage of people willing to investigate. Most people blindly follow what their family does," Brown says. "I've been doing this 20 years, and there's really no difference in the way people do this."

The funeral for Donald Briscoe Buttry—better known as Big Don, owner of the well-known Old City costume shop—was a simple affair. His daughter, Ramona, did as he asked. Not embalmed, his body was dressed in a suit from his closet. He was placed in a casket like the one his wife, Ruth, was buried in. However, Big Don didn't want a memorial service. "He said, 'Just do it and don't wear me out. Just get it over with,'" she says. There were no visitation hours, no service in a funeral home. The casket was placed at his graveside on Sunday, July 11, at Greenwood Cemetery. Chairs were arranged in a semi-circle around the coffin underneath two tents.

"I don't like the idea of the family being in two rows separated from each other," his daughter says.

"And then I started talking abut him, and the things he said to me." When she finished, others chimed in with their own Big Don stories and memories. And soon everyone, was talking about his life. "Everything they said was funny. They might have had tears in their eyes, but they were laughing. He was a real character."

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