If there’s anything Americans love to do, it’s getting a good deal. Many of us research every purchase obsessively, especially on big-ticket items, scouring the Internet, comparison shopping, and bargaining for the best possible price.
But when it comes to funeral services, our bargain hunting instinct seems to be suppressed. Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumer Alliance in Burlington, Vermont, says this cultural habit ought to change. There’s no reason to be ashamed of saving money on funeral arrangements, he says. He also says the funeral industry needs to be transparent to its customers.
Sponsored by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Princeton, Slocum will speak Sunday, April 23, at 2 p.m. at the Princeton Abbey and Cemetery on Mapleton Road in Plainsboro. He will describe how his organization is working to bring transparency and consumer fairness to the funeral industry, which he says often exploits the grief of loved ones to sell unneeded services at high prices. For more information, call 609-924-3320 or visit www.funeralnj.org.
In advocating funeral transparency, Slocum has the law on his side. Most people don’t know this, but there are laws designed to protect funeral home customers under the FTC’s funeral rule. All funeral homes have to give price quotes by phone, and customers always have the right to pick and choose individual services from a price list rather than try to choose between confusing packages. Funeral homes must also give customers an itemized price list the first time they come in to visit.
But Slocum says those laws are outdated now that most people comparison shop using websites rather than phone calls. He advocates updating the law to make funeral homes list their prices online. Although some already do this, he says, many funeral homes don’t.
“The funeral industry has not kept up with changes in culture and technology,” he says. “It’s a very reactionary industry. Many of them are still acting as though they are going to be able to maintain a profitable business in a three-story Victorian funeral home full of viewing rooms and chapels that few people are willing to pay for anymore. The fact that it is 2017 and the industry’s default stance is to hide their prices from the online world should tell people something.”
Slocum says most customers approach funeral homes not even knowing the right questions to ask to get the services they want. For example, a typical customer would ask how much it would cost to bury a relative, to which the funeral director might reply with a quote for a whole host of services including embalming (not necessary unless the customer wants it), a viewing, a graveside service, and other services that the customer may or may not want. Slocum recommends instead asking for the itemized list that they are obligated by law to provide.
Slocum’s organization has done many studies of the funeral business, including a survey of Princeton-area funeral homes comparing prices. He says prices for a simple cremation range from $800 to $3,000 for the same service. “You will not see that kind of price discrepancy in any other kind of purchase,” Slocum says. “You will not go to a store looking for an iPad and find another store charging three times what the local retailer is asking. Shopping around can save you an average of $3,000.”
According to Slocum, many customers are reluctant to comparison shop because no one wants to be “cheap” with a close relative’s funeral. A lavish funeral is seen as sign of caring enough about the person to spend money on their funeral. Slocum urges people to rethink that attitude. “Deconstruct it a little bit,” he says. “What that’s really saying is that we have allowed ourselves as Americans to be convinced that the only way we can show genuine love for the deceased is through commercial expenditure.”
Slocum says this attitude is misguided. “Once a person has died, that person has died. No casket, no cremation, no ceremony will make them less dead, and it will not make them less missed. There’s nothing you can do for a dead person.”
Slocum has seen people go to the opposite extreme when planning their own funerals, demanding relatives have no ceremony and spend nothing on them. “Some people are almost dictatorial,” Slocum says. “They will say, ‘just put me out in the trash,’ or ‘There will be no memorial service.’ Well, people are going to cry. You cannot legislate away their grief and you cannot tell them not to have a ceremony. Well, you can tell them but they don’t have to listen.”
Behind this attitude is the same failure to recognize that the funeral is for the living, not the dead. “Sometimes funeral planning can be an exercise in mortality denial,” Slocum says. “I’ve observed people, I know what goes on in their heads, and people who obsessively attend over every detail of their funeral services — what they’re really doing is self-soothing behavior. They may believe they are making sure everything is orderly and the kids won’t have to worry about anything, but it’s really an exercise in maintaining an illusion of control over something they have no control over.”
Slocum had his own brush with death at age 36, six years ago, when a surprise heart attack put him in the hospital. He has since recovered, but the incident made him grapple with his own funeral plans. Slocum says he gave his relatives some guidelines, but ultimately left it up to them to do what they felt was appropriate. Slocum is an atheist, but he said his next-of-kin were free to give him a religious burial if it made them feel better.
Slocum grew up in upstate New York where his mother was a Medicaid social worker. He became interested in the funeral industry when working as a newspaper reporter. One day he was reporting a story about the questionable practices of local funeral homes, when someone gave him a copy of the Jessica Mitford classic work of journalism, “The American Way of Death.”
Although the book was written in 1963, Slocum saw many of the same unethical practices in place. “How do these guys get away with it?” he wondered. Slocum investigated the local funeral homes and discovered that many businesses that appeared to be family-owned had actually been bought out by Wall Street firms that were demanding high profits.
He also found that regulatory agencies that were supposed to protect consumers were actually acting as a bulwark for the industry against consumer complaints and requests for information. During the report, Slocum worked closely with the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, and in 2003 the Vermont-based group offered him a job.
Today Slocum advocates nationwide for funeral consumers’ rights. The local affiliate of the group, the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Princeton, provides information on local funeral homes. For more information, visit www.fcaprinceton.org.