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The Industry of Dying

November 29, 2021

 

“When a family comes in, they’re often overwhelmed, they’re sad, they’re in shock,” said Emily MacDonald, funeral director at Berger Memorial Chapel. “And sometimes they’ve been working with individuals who have been sick for quite some time, so they have a weird, it’s kind of hard to explain, but a sense of relief, in the sense that their loved one is no longer suffering.”  

Where grief, shock and relief converge, the funeral process begins. For MacDonald, that process is initiated in the form of a simple email to the family she is working with. 

“I often will send them an email actually just kind of outlining the decisions that need to be made and information that we would need together and discuss,” she explained. After the family has time to assess a basic overview of what the process ahead of them will look like, MacDonald typically meets with them to start planning.

“We talk about service logistics, what the service can look like, where it’s going to be, when it’s going to be, transportation to and from the service rituals and traditions that we will help prepare,” said MacDonald. “We then gather information to inform a death certificate.” She also works out information to include in newspaper notices and helps the family select a casket.

This is where the underlying inequality of the funeral industry begins to emerge. “The greatest variable in any funeral is actually going to be a casket because they range across the board in cost,” said MacDonald. “So if I’m talking to a family, regardless of their socioeconomic background, the cost for our services and the cost for the services provided by the cemetery and the rabbi and others are generally the same. It’s just the difference is really within a casket.” According to the Federal Trade Commission, an average casket costs slightly above $2,000, but prices can reach up to $10,000. MacDonald explained that Berger makes price adjustments for clients facing financial hardship and has worked with Jewish Family Services to develop a “burial fund.” Other efforts to make funerals more accessible and equitable include the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit which works to help people make informed decisions and know the rights of funeral industry consumers. Some states also offer direct financial assistance for people who cannot afford to bury a loved one. No statewide assistance is offered in Missouri, but some counties provide assistance to indigent funeral consumers. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also provided financial assistance for COVID-19 related funeral expenses.

MacDonald explained that there are many cremation service providers in St. Louis who offer inexpensive packages. However, these prices do not include services or spaces to hold services, and families may have to provide their own urns.

When a family is dealing with monetary constraints, it can make planning a funeral even more overwhelming. Even for families who can comfortably afford funeral services, the process is emotionally taxing and unfamiliar. Because families planning funerals are in vulnerable positions, it is the responsibility of the funeral director, as well as the funeral home, to guide people through this process while making it as easy as possible. MacDonald is sensitive to this by sending an overview of costs to her clients ahead of time. 

“I always include an anticipated breakdown of cost,” she said. “I always attach the price list, and then I give them the price list when they’re here as well, because I want people to have a good understanding of what to expect.” Because people are in such a compromised position while planning with funeral homes, there are regulations in place to prevent families from being exploited.

Pie chart breakdown of the average burial and funeral fees.

“The Federal Trade Commission and the state of Missouri separately have really stringent, strict laws and penalties for not providing individuals information, 1) as soon as we speak, 2) to take home with them,” said MacDonald. The Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule requires providers of funeral services to give clients “General Price Lists,” itemized lists of goods and services offered that include prices, descriptions and specific disclosures. These disclosures include important information for consumers, such as their right to select only the services they desire. The funeral industry is also regulated at the state level; Missouri statute 333 establishes licensing requirements and inspection procedures for funeral establishments.

Some individuals try to make it easier on their families after they pass away by choosing a pre-arranged funeral, paid either in full or in installments. There are many ways to plan a funeral in advance, including setting up a trust with a specific funeral home or buying funeral insurance.

Even though funeral homes such as Berger are transparent about cost, funerals in the United States are costly. According to a 2021 report by Self Financial, the average cost of funerals has risen 23% since 2006. Cremation costs have also risen 9% since 2014. On average, dying in the U.S. costs about $19,566, including end-of-life care, funerals and cremations.

They give you typically three days off after a loss, and then you’re supposed to come back and act like everything’s normal.”

— Taylor Sedano

“If you’re a working adult, they give you typically three days off after a loss, and then you’re supposed to come back and act like everything’s normal,” said Taylor Sedano, Bereavement Specialist for BJC Hospice. Under both Missouri and national law, employers are not required to provide bereavement leave (paid leave after the death of a loved one) or leave for an employee to attend a funeral. Though many employers provide three days of leave, workers in low-wage jobs are more likely to be denied any leave after a loss.

Death is not only costly to the individuals who experience loved ones’ deaths, but it also affects the economy as a whole. One study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that on average, every COVID-19 death will affect nine people. Across the country, there are minimum-wage employees who are forced to work while struggling with the mental and physical burden of grief. Dying is an industry, just like any other industry that provides goods or services. But unlike cars or hospitality, how it evolves over time will have profound effects on America’s cultural understanding of death and its significance.

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