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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Live or let die

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Apparently, the funeral industry generates $20.7 billion annually in the U.S. In the last 40 years, funeral homes have gone from almost entirely family owned businesses to yet another publicly traded commodity. Close to 14 percent of the market is now owned by Service Corporation International.

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“When my aunt passed away, she had an estate worth, oh, about $120,000, and we ended up paying most of that away in taxes,” a gentleman said.

Fresh flowers on a grave in Holland. Stock photo

Fresh flowers on a grave in Holland. Stock photo

“Unh-unh, people don’t realize,” another man responded.

“No, they don’t.”

I was sitting in the license-plate office, waiting to transfer ownership of a car from my parents’ estates, when I overheard the  conversation. Two gentlemen in work uniforms were commiserating about a topic that touched on my visit there that day. This latest step in settling my parents’ estates is just another reminder that this is far more complicated than necessary. It baffles me endlessly that we, as humans, have taken the one thing that all of us will do—which is die—and make it more complicated and expensive with paperwork.

Shortly, after my mother passed away in 2009, I shocked a friend by commenting that it is expensive to die in the United States. They seemed to think this was in poor taste, apparently. But, equally, I was surprised at the cost of the hospital bills, insurance claims, funeral arrangements, and all the problems with paperwork. Personally, I thought it was in poor taste that the hospital asked how we were planning to pay the bill while Mommy was alive. Then, they sent fundraising letters for the foundation within the next month, citing the wonderful care she got—specifically, in the robotic operating room. Considering she never woke up from surgery, I felt there should have been some a search-and-sort function in the file merge before that letter printed.

But none of that prepared me for the nightmare of handling my father’s passing—and both of my parents’ paperwork by myself. (Jock is sweet and wonderful, but he is not hanging out at the Clerk of Court with me.) There are few things in my life other than this which have been more expensive or eye-opening. Now, I fully understand and acknowledge everyone has to make a living, and businesses have mark-up because that is how operating expenses like salaries get paid. But the visit to the funeral home was surprising. Do you know that if you are cremated you must be in a box of some kind?

“Now, (soft, understanding voice) that can be a cardboard box, or something nicer….(quietly pushing a laminated sheet with pictures and prices across the table),” the mortician said.

For a box that is going to be set on fire when cremated prices start at $95–for cardboard. Fully lined, upholstered caskets are also available with prices that climb into the thousands of dollars.   

Mortician: We’ll help you write an obituary…

Me: One has already been written.

Mortician: But we will help you do that.

Me (glancing at the price sheet and noting the per word cost for that service): No, you won’t. I’m a writer. It’s how I make a living. Besides I’ve read yours, and they suck.

Mortician: Now, when you receive the ashes, there are some nice vessels…(Pushes another laminated picture menu across the table.)

Me: The ashes come in a box, don’t they?

Mortician: There are some nice urns you can select….

Me (thinking of the box of ashes that has been sitting in our living room for Charles for the last eight years): No, I mean they are in an actual box of some sort when you get them?

Mortician (affronted): Yes, a cardboard box, but if you wanted something to hold them, to display them, a nice urn….

Me (shaking my head at the menu): No. I am well connected in the arts community, if I am going to get an urn, it will be made by someone I know.  With talent. Not this.

There was more, much more, but the part I found most fascinating was the discussion of the financing scheme to pay for it. Apparently, they are really excited to set up customers on a monthly payment-and-interest plan to pay off the funeral expenses. First question they ask: “Was there life insurance?” Second: “Did you bring the policy?”

I handed over cash as a down payment, with everything I had in my purse. The next week, when I showed up to make a payment (I had a month to pay the bill in full before finance charges kicked in automatically), it took a half an hour and two people to figure out how to count and write a receipt for cash. Apparently, credit cards and checks are more common.

When it came time for the last payment (on day 29—I was damn well not going to go into interest charges), I was paying with stacks of coins out of the piggy bank. 

“I’m sorry Jock,” I apologized to him when we walked out.

I asked him to come with me because it was the day I picked up the box of my father’s ashes. Holding it in my hands, it felt so light. It’s as hard to believe that a fully grown adult had been reduced to something that weighed less than my purse.

“Are you kidding?” he asked. “I’m proud of you for getting this cleared up and making a point—this is business.” 

He’s right. I don’t begrudge the business, the mark-up and the realities of overhead. As a business owner, I understand all of those things. By law,  a funeral director must receive the body from the morgue; there are limited options for dealing with human remains from then on. They know they have customers at a disadvantage. This is not the time to rent a hearse and start driving a loved one’s remains around town to look for the best deal.

According to PBS, average funerals in the U.S. run $8,000 to $10,000. (Disclosure: I could not afford either and did not do it.) Here is the average cost breakdown from PBS’ estimates:

Casket: $2,300

Funeral Director’s Basic Services: $1,500

Embalming and Body Preparation: $600

Funeral Ceremony and Viewing: $1,000

Miscellaneous (hearse, death certificates, obituary): $600

Grave Plot and Digging:  $2,000

Headstone: $2,000.

Apparently, the funeral industry generates $20.7 billion annually in the U.S.  It is easy to see how. Here is the kicker: In the last 40 years, funeral homes have gone from almost entirely family owned businesses to yet another publicly traded commodity. Close to 14 percent of the market is now owned by Service Corporation International.

Then there is the excitement of formally opening an estate at the Clerk of Court’s office. Of course, there is a fee and a percentage of the estate upon closing it. A fee for the newspaper ads that must run, and the death certificates that are essential to do anything (even talk to the phone company about closing the phone account) are $10 each.

The real expense is the time. We must devote a tremendous amount of time to accomplishing each task, in person, during business hours. I cannot imagine how someone who works as a teacher, or in a factory, could possibly find the time to do all this. Easily, it takes one full day a week, and at every turn there is another fee and more minutiae. If it wasn’t so frustrating, it would be fascinating as a study of Kafka’s work come to life.

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