These are turbulent and extraordinary times for the funeral industry. Cremations are up, death positive is in, and shooting grandma’s cremation remains out of a cannon or planting dad’s ashes in a coral garden are real-life possibilities. For tenacious funerary critic Josh Slocum, one mammoth multinational corporation, Service Corporation International, or SCI, runs the show, and “bad actors” who do not have the consumer’s best interest at heart are out there too.
Slocum is Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. He is a controversial figure in the world of death. It could be said that the funeral industry has no louder critic and consumers no greater advocate than Slocum. Whether he is right or wrong, all depends on your point of view. To many in the industry, Slocum is a mystery. He hosts regular conferences and is occasionally quoted in the New York Times, but I think it’s fair to say there is a faction in the funeral industry that is suspicious of him.
Just who is Josh Slocum? Just what is he preaching? Digital Dying recently spoke at length with Slocum to find out.
We should note that Slocum is known for hitting the industry hard and his comments to us are no different. Accordingly, we must point out that our publication of this interview is not a blanket endorsement of Mr. Slocum’s views. Through Digital Dying we seek to explore all ideas, customs, and trends in how the end of life is viewed and observed in the digital age. We encourage you to offer your comments.
They say you are a man of mystery—What’s your story?
I was a newspaper reporter in Virginia in the years after college and looking to do a feature story on consumer protection issues in the funeral industry. I learned that big national chains were buying up local funeral homes and basically colluding with local governments. The funeral director boards, which are supposed to regulate the industry and protect the public, were basically covering up the misdeeds of the industry, and rubber stamping all the deals. What I wanted to do was look at how the price of funerals changed when Wall Street buys a local funeral home. I pursued this, and that turned into a job offer with the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The article never got written, but I eventually I wrote a book, Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death.
What happens when Wall Street buys a local funeral home—Do prices go up?
Oh god yes. Anytime we do a survey SCI funeral homes are always the most expensive. I cringe when I hear people describe SCI as the Walmart or McDonald’s of the funeral industry, it’s not. Whether or not you approve of Walmart, the objective fact is they do lower prices of consumer goods. It’s exactly the opposite with funeral homes. All the savings they get go into profits for shareholders. The actual consumers are not the grieving families; they’re the shareholders. SCI is part of the problem with the American funeral home, but there are plenty of problems in the American funeral industry without corporatization. Even among small family-owned funeral homes, it’s not all just Mayberry with a little Hallmark card. Local does not necessarily mean upstanding
What’s the mission of the Funeral Consumers Alliance?
We want to show people that they have the skills and ability to plan funerals, cremations, and burials to fit their budget that are meaningful without requiring people to spend more than they are willing to spend. Basically, we want to encourage consumers to do the types of things they do before purchasing other big-ticket items. Most of what I think gets in the way is that we tell ourselves a story that this is a lot scarier than we think it is. We want to make sure people know that they have rights. There are funeral related purchases they have to buy, and ones they don’t. We are trying to make it known that people don’t have to be swept along like helpless victims.
What are some of the funeral purchases consumers are convinced they need, but you would say they don’t actually need?
Let’s start at the bottom, in most states you don’t need a funeral home at all. One-hundred years ago, even 20 years ago, your family, my family, were laying out the dead at home. We are so removed from that process that most people cannot conceive of a death without a funeral home. That to me is extraordinary. It’s like people saying, what would you do if you wanted to make ten people dinner but had no restaurants around? You’d cook dinner for them! You have to realize everything the funeral home offers is optional. Embalming is not a legal requirement. Public viewing of the body is not required. Caskets don’t have to bankrupt you; you can choose something inexpensive. We are led to believe that we might not care as much about our parents unless we have X, Y, Z but these are all made up stories we allow ourselves to be told, and the only people who benefit are the storytellers, i.e., the funeral homes. They certainly don’t help you grieve better; I can tell you that.
So it sounds like you’re saying we’re all being bilked…Just how did we get here?
The American funeral industry came out of the Civil War, which inspired the creation of the chemical formaldehyde. There was a huge need to get bodies back home by train without them rotting. At the same time, we were moving off farms and into urban locations where homes were not set up to accept coffins. That produced a need for a professional class of people, and thus the funeral industry was born. But the industry itself was very prescient. Even in the 1880s, they went around underwriting the laws on who can practice funerals. They were waging a quiet but key campaign to elevate their status. They wanted to be seen as learned professionals like lawyers or physicians, which is ridiculous. As new generations come around, the memory of what a thing used to be goes away, and people only remember what a thing has become.
So you’re talking about more than just funerals, you’re talking about human anthropology and our tendency to forget the past and accept the present without question?
Our expectation of what constitutes a reasonable standard of living is so sky-high these days that we have no ability to live without getting people to do things for us, whether it be to grow our food, fix our cars, or prepare our dead bodies. There are consequences to that. It’s astonishing how little practical life knowledge us Americans have compared to our immediate ancestors. We are losing our knowledge of how to do things, whether it be to prepare a body or grow a vegetable garden. Think about wedding planners; I remember when they were really new. Now everyone talks about wedding planners like they’re the most normal thing in the world. The ridiculous becomes normalized, and then it just becomes reality. Every step of the way we’re further away from believing we can do it ourselves. And when we believe we are helpless, we’re ripe to be taken advantage of. Can you think of anyone more ripe to be taken advantage of than a grieving widow who has just lost her husband?
Do consumers also bear some responsibility for making poor funeral decisions?
Yes. We the humans, the adults, the grieving mourners have to make adult choices. I’m sorry to say that most of us don’t. The funeral doesn’t have to be $8,000, but that’s a grownup choice that we make every day and in every other sphere in our lives. We may not be able to afford a $50,000 destination wedding so we have a wedding in the local church. There are many ways to grieve a loved one; you don’t have to chain yourself to the idea that the only way to have a good funeral is to bankrupt yourself and break your pocketbook. We are not helpless as Americans. Most of what we try and tell people is they do have control in this.
If people have no need for funeral homes, is there any need for mortuary school?
Here is the plain objective truth, nothing a funeral director does requires any skill that any normal person cannot do. Nobody needs to go to school to figure out how to lift a shoulder and move a dead body. Nobody needs to go to school to figure out how to dress a dead body or fill out a death certificate. I know this may sound bracing but good, it should brace—if you change a baby’s diaper, you know how to dress a dead person. The basis of having rights as a funeral consumer starts with the right to choose not to be a consumer in the first place. When you realize that if push came to shove you and your family could do this you no longer feel trapped, and you will make reasonable decisions.
But surely the explosion of new funerary options made possible by the web has helped consumers, right?
The web has not solved the industry’s longstanding problems; in fact, the web has created the opportunity for even more problems. We’ve done four national sampling surveys and found that at best only 25 percent of funeral homes put pricing information online. It’s a very deliberate campaign of keeping prices secret. They know full well they’re charging prices no other industry could get away with, and they believe they’re entitled to do it. Even car dealers, the butt of every joke about bad salesmanship, are five times more transparent than funeral homes. This is why my organization is trying to convince the Federal Trade Commission to make it mandatory that the funeral industry post prices online—that would make a big difference. I’ll tell you another new trend I’m not impressed with, these so-called concierge services telling you that to get the best prices you need to pay another professional to help you interface with the funeral home.
Let’s end on a happy note, what’s a good trend happening today in the funeral industry?
I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made in the last 15 years when it comes to awareness around the issue of home funerals, and family-directed funerals, as well as what people are calling natural burial and green burial. When I first came to this job there were two cemeteries in the entire country that did natural burial; today there are over 100. When I first took this job, this was one of the only organizations giving this information out; now there are others. I am not naïve enough to think that most people are going to go back to farm burials, but I do think that we’ve made some progress. I am really pleased to see the death positive movement flourishing. And Caitlin Doughty, I am really pleased to see that her group is saying, ‘Let us demystify death, let’s talk about this and make it normal.’ That is good cultural progress.
Digital Dying invites funeral industry professionals and consumers to weigh in on the topics discussed in this interview. We are a forum for open exchange of ideas and welcome all points of view.