It’s rarely careful thought and analysis that prompts the choice of one funeral home over another. Nor is it a matter of price. According to Laurie Powsner, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Princeton, “people don’t know that funeral homes two blocks away from each other in Princeton can have vastly different costs.”
Powsner says that people will often use the same funeral home they used the last time a loved one passed away — even if they had a bad experience. The reason is often a feeling of family obligation or loyalty. Or they’ll go on the recommendation of a religious leader. Price often does not even come up as a criterion.
But for Powsner, a funeral is in large part a commercial transaction, and she likes to compare the purchase of a funeral and related services with buying a new car. Before people even walk in the door of a car dealership, they have gathered information on the car they are interested in, checking out prices and available options.
Powsner would like to see people prepare similarly for funerals. “If you think about how well you would you do with a car dealer the day after your partner died,” she says, “you might not make such a good decision.” But that’s what most people do when they choose a funeral home. They walk in the day after a death and say to the funeral director, “Okay, what do I need?”
That, says Powsner, is exactly like walking into a car dealer and asking, ‘What do you think I need?’” Hmm, how about a top-of-the-line stereo and leather seats — you deserve it! It is the same with funeral directors, Powsner says, even the honest and trustworthy ones who are in the business because they like to help people. Like every other business owner, they need to make money, and “consciously or unconsciously they will steer you to purchase goods and services,” she says.
There is a quiet movement that is responding to the high costs charged by the funeral industry, and, at the same time, working to reclaim the intimacy of the home funeral. This is the subject of “A Family Undertaking,” a PBS POV documentary showing at the Princeton Public Library on Thursday, August 2, at 7 p.m. Powsner will lead a discussion after the film. She suggests that people overcome any feeling of avoidance and view the film just to learn about home funerals. “It’s not for everybody,” she says, “but you can see it as a sweet, viable, meaningful option.”
Powsner, a hospice social worker at Princeton Healthcare System, first heard about the film when the filmmaker, Elizabeth Westrate, was calling hospices looking for families planning home funerals who might be part of her film.
While the film makes a home funeral sound easy, that would not necessarily be the case in New Jersey, says Powsner. For one thing, she says, “New Jersey has a law that says the body has only 48 hours that it can be out on its own. After that period it needs to be embalmed, buried, cremated, or refrigerated.” A subset of refrigeration is dry ice, she adds, which New Jerseyans have sometimes had to use for home funerals.
This law also affects funeral homes, many of which don’t have refrigeration. The only option if family is coming from far away may be embalming, says Powsner, leaving no choice for “someone against embalming for religious reasons, or because it’s gross.”
So why is it that in some states, according to Powsner, “you can leave mom in the front room for a week.” This is where politics comes in. State laws were pushed by the New Jersey State Funeral Directors Association, she says, “and the lobbyists claim they are related to health and public safety.”
If you can finesse the “storage” issue, then you can do a home funeral in New Jersey, in principle at least. But, says Powsner, in reality you can’t.
The first challenge will be getting control of the body. That’s not a problem if someone dies at home on hospice, says Powsner, because “you don’t have to wrestle the body out of the hospital. But if the body is at the hospital, you would have a hell of a time.” She can’t quite imagine orderlies offering, “Let me load your mom into the back of your station wagon.”
But let’s say the person dies at home, where a hospice nurse does the pronouncement, and you bring the death certificate to the physician for a signature (a service usually provided by the funeral home).
So far so good. But then you would have to go to the borough clerk and ask to buy a removal permit to transport the body. “The clerk probably is not going to give to you,” says Powsner, “because the only person they have given it to in the past is a funeral director.”
(Whether family members can get a removal permit will be a moot point when electronic registration supersedes paper death certificates. Mercer County has been the beta test site for this, and when it goes state wide, only funeral directors will have the passwords.)
If you manage to get the permit, there is still a final sticking point. Even with a notarized document, no crematory in New Jersey will accept the body, thanks to a state law aimed at preventing criminals from destroying evidence.
Although no state law prevents cemeteries from accepting bodies from a family, most will not. “The people in Princeton Cemetery won’t take a body from you,” says Powsner. “A funeral director has to be present for the disposition.”
Why the unwillingness to deal with families at the cemetery? Powsner’s opinion is that cemeteries need to stay friendly with funeral directors, and that they are basing their actions on the state regulations for funeral directors.
But Rob Smith, who has 100 funeral service students in a three-year program at Mercer County Community College, says that cemeteries need to deal only with professionals. The son of a funeral director and the graduate of Indiana College of Mortuary Science, he owns a funeral home in Gloucester County. “They need to know that all the necessary details will be taken care of,” says Smith. “They look to the funeral director to be sure things happen that way.”
Powsner argues that these regulations “are only relevant to those in the business of funeral directing, and should not be relevant to families and individuals.” She uses an analogy to explain her rationale. Even though Powsner is not a licensed doctor, she can provide Tylenol and Band-Aids if her children need them. Similarly, the rules about having a funeral director present for disposition were made for the benefit of funeral directors, and not for families.
But because these rules are on the books, and interpreted as applying widely, the funeral alliance advises families who do home funerals to engage a funeral director to transport the body or to meet them at the cemetery or crematory for disposition.
In its continuing resistance to home funerals, the funeral industry maintains that you can’t have funerals unregulated, says Powsner, because otherwise someone could kill their spouse and bury the body in the backyard. She doesn’t see this as a common circumstance, or a compelling argument against home funerals. “It’s a rights issue,” she says. “I don’t think you should have to involve a for-profit industry if you don’t want to.”
But in many ways the two sides have developed a working relationship. One reason for that is the existence of an organization like the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Princeton, with a mission to provide “the information and encouragement you need to plan final arrangements appropriate to your personal beliefs and circumstances.” Its primary approach is through education, teaching people how to plan for the end of life.
“Think about what is important to you, how much money you have, and how much you want to spend,” says Powsner. “Sometimes the wealthiest people want the least expensive arrangements. They would rather leave the money to their children and a charitable organization.”
Powsner fell into her work with the funeral alliance both as a logical adjunct to her career as a hospice social worker and as part of a family tradition. After getting her master’s degree in social work from Boston University in 1987, which followed a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Antioch College (Class of 1983), Powsner worked with homeless families, a percentage of whom had HIV AIDS.
“It was fascinating to me, the idea of knowing that you’re dying,” she says, “and that’s what led me to hospice.” And, she might add, what has kept her there. She has been doing hospice work for 16 years.
Her hospice work “logically led to everything relating to death,” she says. “Everyone in hospice or their families should be thinking about funeral arrangements.”
Powsner was also familiar with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Princeton through her father, Henry Powsner, a retired Princeton radiologist who has been a member of its board on and off since the 1970s.
Powsner has spoken with her father and mother, who is an artist, about their preferences. At first her family had favored cremation, with burial of the urns in plots her parents purchased at the Princeton Cemetery. “They liked the idea of grandchildren coming to visit,” says Powsner.
In recent years, though, her 79-year-old parents’ views have changed as a result of their interest in environmental issues; evidence of the intensity of their involvement is their installation of a geothermal heating system for their house, more as an example of green living, says Powsner, than because they are likely to recoup expenses.
Environmentalists no longer support cremation, both because of chemicals released into the air and the incredible amounts of fossil fuels it requires. As a result, says Powsner, “my parents have agreed now to have the closest thing to a green burial that you can have in Princeton.” That means not being embalmed, both for esthetic reasons and because of chemicals that can damage the environment and the people who have to work with them, and using either a plain pine box or a shroud.
Although the cemetery does not require a casket, many require a vault to keep the grave from sinking. Given this requirement, her parents will want to have a vault with holes drilled in the bottom, so that as the body decomposes it returns to the earth, achieving the biblical “dust to dust.”
Powsner has talked to her husband about death, and both are organ donors. She has not talked to her children, but because she works with hospice, they often hear humor and joking about death at home.
A family medical crisis six years ago — when her then five-year-old daughter had surgery for a brain tumor — meant Powsner did a lot of thinking about what she would do if her husband or children died. Luckily her daughter is fine now, but at that time, she says, “one of the things very clear to me was that if my 5-year-old baby died, there was not a chance that I would let her body be alone, without me. Just because someone has died, that doesn’t mean you don’t still love that body for awhile.”
That, she adds, is part of the beauty of a home funeral. Keeping the body around can help people overcome the sense of unreality that can surround death “in part because they are so removed from the dying process and removed from death. If it were more intimate, that first hurdle of accepting the reality of a loss would be a lot easier.”
Powsner, who is also on the national board of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, says that the Princeton chapter is one of eight in New Jersey and about 110 nationally. It has a dozen board members and a membership of about 1,200 households.
Memberships are for life, $25 for an individual and an additional $10 for each member of the same household. Forms are available on the website or in the alliance’s brochure.
New members receive “a wealth of information,” including about a dozen pamphlets from the national alliance that cover the gamut of death-related information, from body donation and hospice to advanced directives to embalming, burial, cremation, and hospice. An “Expression of Personal Wishes” form allows individuals to specify preferences about what they want to happen when they die, and an eight-page workbook produced by the Princeton chapter, “Putting My House in Order,” tells survivors everything they need to know about finances, insurance, and property. Members also receive a copy of the book “Dealing Creatively With Death” by Ernest Morgan.
Although the alliance’s board sees the organization primarily as an educational entity, members receive discounts from cooperating funeral homes, and the cooperating price list comes in the membership packet. Kimble in Princeton and John Alloway in the Cherry Hill area are members, and the alliance also works with homes in Trenton, Hamilton, and Ewing, Somerville, and Hightstown. These are funeral homes, says Powsner, “that we like, respect, and are on the same wave length as our customers.”
Alliance members can get a significant discount for a preplanned, packaged cremation or funeral. Alloway, for example, offers direct cremation to the general public for $600 and to alliance members for $450. Kimble charges $2,300 for the general public and about $1,200 for members.
A simple, preplanned funeral — which averages about $6,000 nationally, including embalming, a service, a one-hour viewing directly before the service, and a minimum-acceptable casket selected by the funeral home — is available for under $2,000. The advantage for the funeral home, says Powsner, is that it is dealing with customers who know what they want.
The alliance is moving away from the idea of being a buying club for funeral consumers and toward being primarily a source of information, education, and advocacy. “We are more interested in funeral homes doing the right thing than getting you a cheap funeral.”
As a result, the organization has become more proactive in vetting funeral homes. Just as the American Automobile Association and Consumer Reports serve as watchdogs, the alliance keeps the funeral industry honest. “We want to be able to say, ‘if you use one on our list, you will be happy,’” says Powsner. But funerals are planned quickly and people may be pushed in directions that leave them dissatisfied, as studies say many people are. With a funeral, continues Powsner, “you only get one shot. We want it to be what you want, part of the healing process.”
Incorporated in 1956 as the Princeton Memorial Association, the alliance was established by members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton. One of the founders, Peter Putnam, wrote a history of the association. “To our surprise, we found that we took great exception to contemporary funeral practices,” he wrote, “and when someone indicated that there were such things as funeral societies, my wife volunteered to investigate.” After some research by Putnam’s wife, Durinda, they started the group.
Not too long after, Jessica Mitford published “The American Way of Death,” and then, says Powsner, “organizations sprouted up all over.”
Early on the Princeton group leaned toward cremation as the option of choice — “Why pay $2,000 when you can pay $400?” asks Powsner. But it quickly dropped that approach, realizing that it violated freedom of choice.
The society soon moved beyond its Unitarian roots and reached out to all Princeton pastors. Although initially the group leaned toward simple ceremonies, “over time,” says Powsner, “we have changed our mission and focus, and we are interested in protecting the rights of everyone.”
In addition to consumer empowerment, the national group has taken on funeral homes more directly. Largely through its efforts, for example, the Federal Trade Commission issued a rule that requires a funeral home to provide a price list to anyone who walks in the door, even a competitor, says Powsner. If a person walks in and asks for help planning a funeral, the funeral home has to provide a price list immediately.
The group has also become more active in analyzing prices for funeral services. It is now in the midst of a price survey comparing about 30 area funeral homes for standard services like direct cremation, direct burial, and embalming. In implementing the survey, the funeral alliance has approached funeral directors honestly but gingerly. Their approach goes something like this: “We know you want to be in compliance with the Federal Trade Commission and for your price list to be clear, understandable, and fair. We will review the price list and suggest areas where you missed something, or made a math error, or did not phrase something in accordance with the commission’s requirements.”
Then it’s up to them whether they decide to follow any suggestions. So far, the alliance has resisted reporting uncooperative funeral directors to the FTC, “because we thought it would be better to have good relations with the funeral directors,” says Powsner.
Responses to the survey have been varied, with most funeral directors being cooperative, but, says Powsner, “some flat out refused.”
Although Powsner goes out of her way to praise most funeral directors, she says that some engage in questionable business practices. A popular one is “upselling,” trying to have someone buy something more expensive than they came in to buy. For example, they might make people feel bad about buying the least expensive casket — that’s no way to honor your mother! To empower consumers in these situations, the national Funeral Consumers Alliance (www.funerals.org) publishes a booklet titled “The Tricks of the Funeral Trade.”
Powsner shares some observations of the funeral trade. The biggest expense is the casket, she says, where the markup can be 800 percent. But consumers can buy a casket online, with guaranteed next-day delivery. One eco-friendly site offers a heavy-duty cardboard casket. Another little-known fact is the price differences among funeral homes, which are apparent in an online search. But even there, many funeral homes don’t show their lowest-range choices. And as Powsner observes, “How many people shop around for a funeral?”
Powsner has a theory about why funeral homes try to be as cagey as possible about prices. She says that changes in the funeral industry drive upselling practices. In the old days, she points out, funeral directors usually had another profession. They may have been cabinet makers, for example. Even in many areas today, it doesn’t really work as a full-time business, she says, “and there are more funeral homes in the United States than the death rate can accommodate.” Funeral home directors will sometimes justify their costs by pointing out that they have to be staffed and ready at all times, despite the fact that business can be sporadic.
Another common misconception about funeral homes is that you need to use the one closest to you. “The only reason to use a local funeral home,” says Powsner, “is if you want to have the viewing at the funeral home, or if you’ve always dreamed of having a funeral service at a funeral home. Then you want to choose one convenient to friends and family. If you’re having the service elsewhere, then you don’t need to set foot in a funeral home.”
None of this is to say that Powsner is opposed to holding a funeral at, or with the help of, a funeral home. Working with a funeral director is like using a wedding planner, she says. For instance, the funeral director acts as a counselor to discover the bereaved families’ wishes. “We spend time gathering information from the family members so that, drawing on our experience, we can make suggestions as to appropriate ceremonies,” says MCCC’s Smith. “Of five or ten funerals in a week, no two would be the same.” The director also takes care of such details as answering phone calls about the service, writing and filing the obituary, ordering and receiving flowers, getting the guest book signed — as well as the obvious ones, such as transportation and embalming.
To have every detail taken care of is exactly what some people want, Powsner says, objecting only when the funeral director grossly inflates prices or sells grieving families goods or services that they do not need — or even want.
It will soon be easy for grief-stricken families, and for those prudent souls who like to shop in advance, to compare funeral home prices. Powsner’s group is getting ready to publish its price list, and plans to distribute it “far and wide.” There will be copies in hospices and in nursing homes, for example. Anyone who would like a copy, and the list should be ready on or about the beginning of September, can get one free of charge from the alliance.
Whereas Powsner’s organization expends a lot of effort in ensuring that funeral homes offer a fair deal for New Jersey consumers dealing with the end of life, she is also hopeful that eventually the end of the life cycle can also find a comfortable place in the home. It’s worked, after all, for giving birth, despite the inherent risks. “Having a baby at home — that’s a dangerous, risky endeavor that people have a right to do,” says Powsner. “The mother could die, and the baby could die.”
With a funeral, dying is not an issue and the risk to the living is minimal, but there is no right to a home funeral — not yet, not in New Jersey. Maybe that’s the fault of lobbying by the industry, but perhaps the real question is whether we are ready to face death with the intimacy of a home funeral rather than from the more comfortable distance of the store-bought variety.
Funeral Consumers Alliance of Princeton, 50 Cherry Hill Road, Princeton 08540; 609-924-3320.