Walmart-type funeral services and how they nickel-and-dime the bereaved while falling short of providing meaning and hope.
Most of the Walmart-type funeral chains are, like Walmart, impossibly large.
When I use the term “Walmart” I mean any operation that is a chain of oversized superstores mostly found in the population centers in the USA, known for driving local family-oriented service providers out of generations-old businesses, and characterized up-selling poor-quality goods and services, assisted by clone-like corporate staff, and presenting a cloying and gawdy image of shallow, phony sensitivity and compassion and flag-waving, exploiting cherished values for profit, and contributing to the demise of tradition and family piety. A major competitor to municipal waste management in reducing the dignity of the dead and the bereaveds’ continuing bonds with their dead by advocating fast and cheap mortuary services, leaving the living cold as the deceased. Contributing to this grim scenario is the fact that most of the Walmart-type funeral chains are, like Walmart, impossibly large. Very large organizations need rigid rules and policies in order to function; this is true also of the funeral service chains. Examples of this type of Walmart funeral home chain or factory funeral home would be Newcomer Funeral Service Group (Newcomer Funerals and Cremations), Service Corporation International (SCI), Dignity Memorial® (SCI in public), StoneMor. All of these corporate funeral service corporations are hiding behind familiar, local, formerly independent funeral home names, so don’t be misled.
How crazy does it get? Well, the recent development in cremation, with all of its promotional misinformation and propaganda, as an alternative to burial is clearly disgusting, you really have to spend a couple of minutes with these gruesome videos on alternative disposal options soon to be offered at a Walmart (or a Newcomer or a Dignity Memorial) funeral service provider near you! Alkaline hydrolysis, Dissolving Grandpa in a Draino Bath, Freeze-dry Grandma, then Pulverize Her. Then there’s the corpse composting movement, the Urban Death Project, A Project to Turn Corpses Into Compost, A Seattle based eco-friendly ‘initiative’ proposes a radical solution for urban food production: using human corpses as compost to feed crops. Or just dissolve human corpses by alkaline hydrolysis. Resomation (Liquifying): The New Green Alternative to Cremation. Everything You [Don’t] Want to Know about Cremation: An Overview, Did I get the right ashes?, Cremation Process, Behind the scenes in a crematorium, and What Funeral Homes Won’t Tell You (Forbes).
Overall, we see that families are increasingly interested in what a “celebration of life” and the personalized funeral or memorial service. Unlike a wedding or a graduation, the funeral or memorial is a one-off event. You just can’t do it again and get it right, you need to experience it when it happens. And you need to give yourself permission to grieve, to continue the bond with the deceased, to heal, and to go on with life. All of this involves a great variety of death-related activities both behind-the-scenes and up front, and it all has to be up close, intimate and personal in order for mourners to take home the benefits.
Despite the funeral chains, the funeral service corporations, and the grisly, sometimes disgusting alternatives to traditional funeral rites and burial, families are asking for more from their service providers. Dignity, personalization, ritual, tradition, compassion, sensitivity, fair play, just to mention a few. That “more” can’t be delivered by the Walmarts of the funeral service industry. To get that added value you don’t need a corporate log-roller with a policy, a pitch and a scripted program, you need a compassionate, caring, expert team of professionals who know the deceased, the survivors, and their culture.
Editor’s note. The ethnic diversity of Western culture makes it almost impossible for a multi-state or multi-national corporation to provide the promised one-stop full-service funeral or memorial service. Only a local independent funeral home and a funeral director steeped in the local culture and sensitive to the needs of the local population can serve at such an emotional and critical time as a death. We’ve all had the unfortunate experience of having to go to a corporate urgent care clinic or to a corporate hospital ER or specialist clinic while still living and able to say NO! to the long waits and impersonal service; compare that to the corporate funeral service treatment! Now that’s when you’re mainstream, middlish class, relatively unstressed and have time to make a good decision. That’s not the case in the event of a death when everything has to be wrapped up in 1-2 days! It gets even worse when you are a cultural or ethnic minority with solid traditions and values like Asians, Latinos and Hispanics, African Americans, or are a member of a real minority or a socioeconomically marginalized group.
All things considered, we can take a good lesson from our Jewish brothers and sisters who have kept their traditions and values and, when the funeral corporations threatened their cherished traditions, rose up and fought back (See our article How the Federal Trade Commission Promotes Corporate Deathcare Selling Out the American Way of Deathcare). When Service Corporation International (SCI, operating under the brand Dignity Memorial) and Stewart Enterprises, the second largest funeral service group in the United States, were merging, the merger involved an important Jewish funeral service provider in the Washington, D.C. area, the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of the Greater Washington Area (JFPCGW), which serves as a model to community funeral practice organizations throughout the United States. started a campaign to oppose the merger, and was supported by numerous public officials who wrote to the FTC in strong opposition to the foreseeable effects of such overreaching control of the funeral market in the United States. (See our article How the Federal Trade Commission Promotes Corporate Deathcare Selling Out the American Way of Deathcare). It’s embarrassing to have to note how sheepish and silent the majority of Americans are when it comes to defending their traditions and values, or what’s left of them.
The good news is that according to funeral industry observers, there is a good indication that consumer behavior will continue to trend back to the typical traditional funeral. Depending on where your traditional funeral home is located and its specific amenities, its services may vary in their scope but families will continue to rely on expertise of the bereavement specialist for unique ritual and ceremonial remembrances and other funeralization and memorialization options. As personalization becomes more popular in our funeral services, funeral directors should be ready to introduce and provide new service options that better represent and respond to how people want to remember and how people are remembering and paying tribute to their loved ones. These newer service options are not really new at all and draw on traditional rituals but with an updated presentation and relevance, more opportunities for mourners to be directly involved in the ritual and ceremony rather than sitting like dumb spectators. During pre-arrangement meetings, it is important for the you or your loved one to provide some indication of how they want to be remembered, since this provides important clues as to how the service should be designed and presented. Ritual is in, cookie-cutter is out!
It’s not just the family-owned funeral homes that are being pushed to the brink of extinction by these greedy giants, it’s also the cemeteries around the country that are increasingly being “acquired” by these corporations, frequently without informing families owning plots, and driving up the price of burial. Of course, if you balk at the corporations’ expensive cemetery scams, they’re there to sell you a cremation and an expensive urn. But beware, too, of cremation and take-home urns; there’s a sinister corporate logic and plan behind that, too. You see, the corporations don’t consider cemeteries to be consecrated, hallowed ground, sacred space. Service Corporation International, Dignity Memorial, StoneMor and Newcomer and their ilk all consider your hallowed ground to be valuable real estate! The space where you once buried a body can now accommodate up to 12 cremated bodies; the ground becomes 12x as valuable. Better still, the corporations say, don’t even bother burying the remains, and they’ll buy up the cemetery, dispose of the bodies buried there, and repurpose the land as commercial or residential real estate. They’ve got all exits covered. You would probably be very surprised to learn that your local Roman Catholic diocesan cemetery is controlled by a death corporation like StoneMor or Service Corporation International (SCI).
The corporations like SCI and StoneMor are acutely aware of the value of cemetery real estate and are standing ready to cash in on it (America’s Looming Burial Crisis. There are option, What Happens if a Cemetery Goes Under). Ask yourself where does it all stop? When do they start pushing to repurpose our consecrated, hallowed ground for a new condo complex or an industrial park?.
Be very aware that once the corporations take over your diocesan or community cemeteries they become Ghouls Gulch for everyone. Just read the Bloomberg news report on SCI and what happened at one cemetery, Huge Funeral Chain Settles Graveyard Desecration Suit, Buries Financial Details. There’s the StoneMor conspiracy with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia allowing StoneMor to take over 13 diocesan cemeteries for an initial $53 million to “assist in the diocese’s cash flow” (Read about it at StoneMor to Manage 13 Catholic Cemeteries, Bucks County company running local Catholic cemeteries denies families’ allegations of high-pressure sales tactics) Or get the ratings on funeral homes at Funeral Home Ratings and find Newcomer to be rated in the Albany, New York, area at 1.7 out of a possible 5.0 points, “Funeral Home New Comer Funerals and Cremations has a poor overall rating on FuneralHomeRatingz.com.” Newcomer is not Better Business Bureau (BBB) rated. (Editor’s note. Too many people are too willing to please so we don’t often give much credibility to positive ratings, and tend to explore the facts around the negative ratings; the negatives tell more of the true story.)
Don’t be mistaken: these Walmart-funeral service corporations are not interested in your loss or how you grieve; their sole interest is in how much money they can make by gobbling up as much of the death industry as possible to make as much money as possible by exploiting your loss. Their goal is to make money by actually reducing your choices or depriving you of what choices and options you have. They are, after all, corporations. As they “acquire” ( = buy up) what they quaintly call “locations” (formerly family-owned funeral homes, community cemeteries) their scandalous operations are resulting in more and more bad press and lawsuits. But you’re obviously not reading those stories in the press or you wouldn’t be surprised at what this article is telling you.
A well-known and popular online news and information site, the Huffington Post, recently published an article that would be comical if it weren’t so sadly true, Huffington Post asks: “Would you rest the soul of a loved one with a product purchased from Walmart?” (Walmart Caskets For Sale Online, Starting At $999). Has mainstream American culture become so trailer-trash cheap that we can’t even treat our dead loved ones with respect and dignity?
Those of us who study grief and mourning, dying and death, are frequently aghast at what we observe in so many chain funeral homes and factory funeral service providers today. The rushed atmosphere, the used-car sales tactics, the upselling and nickel-and-diming, the superficiality and insensitivity are appalling. It’s even more disgraceful to observe the bereaved being shuttled from signing stacks of paperwork to the “merchandise” room, and then to the door. It’s almost like bringing your car for an oil change. Pure routine. Where’s the compassion, where’s the humanity, where’s the feeling? You’ve just lost the love of your life and you’re getting the oil-change treatment.
The scam of the direct cremation or direct burial for $1000 or less (excluding various “ service fees,” of course), is not really intended to spare you any inconvenience like experiencing the necessary grief and mourning, finding meaning in the death, or even enhancing the healing following the death. It’s a quick buck for the mortuary services company. Why not just call your local domestic waste collection and disposal company and have done with it at a fraction of the cost. Just call the local transfer station for a pick-up. You may save a couple of bucks and a couple of hours of time by directly disposing of mom or dad but you still have to live with yourself, the unfinished work of grieving, and the guilt of failing in your natural obligations to your dead! Why not just drink some Draino or antifreeze; you’ll feel better.
Hold on! The corporations are offering yet another option. It’s called “resomation” or alkaline hydrolysis This is for real. You see, some companies have devised a way to actually dissolve the deceased in a draino-like solution and once the body is dissolve, it’s emptied into the sewer system. And you thought all that happened only in B-rated horror films or gangster films in a hotel bathtub. Well, there are some pretty disgusting things people are selling these days. [Liquifying human remains seen as “green” alternative to cremation]
And what about those hip and knee implants? You know the titanium and steel stuff that won’t burn or dissolve. Well your friends in corporate funeral services have taken care of that too! They recycle those parts and it’s become a big business. (Check out this BBC article, “Melting down hips and knees: The afterlife of implants”)
I remember one professor in my seminary used to say that we became human when we started treating our dead like a “Who” rather than a “What”. Non-humans grieve and mourn their dead. Every culture and every society has traditions, rites, rituals that are associated with death and mourning. Every culture and every society that is not controlled by corporate greed and materialist consumerism and its fake individualism, that is. Why is it that Western society has become slaves to corporations whose sole aim is to reduce human beings to means to an end, a means to making money and acquiring power, reducing us all to the degrading status of mere consumers. Why? Because you let them do it to you. In fact, going back to when we first became human, we’re making a 180º turn: We’re moving from being human to becoming non-human; we’ve stopped treating our dead as “Who” and are now treating them as “What”.
You think you have freedom and you think you have choice. Well, let me wake you up. Here’s the ugly fact: You have become that flimsy image reflected in the screen of your smartphone as you obsessively search your Facebook posts and your emails to find some acknowledgement of your existence by your disembodied electronic virtual friends. You’re vision is forever downward into your smartphone and your horizon extends only to your feet. When we used to say the sky’s the limit, your feet have become your limit. Your neck perpetually bent, your eyes forever squinting to read the small texts. You have become what the corporations have made you: hopeless, means to their ends, consumers. Time to step up and go back to being community!