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Death Care

An Important American Industry

Death care is an intriguing term that usually refers to an entire, quite lucrative, industry involving funeral homes, cemeteries, crematories, and those who make and sell products used by those businesses. (Urns, caskets, headstones, etc.) Death care has changed rather dramatically in recent years, and, today, much of what’s written about the industry involves consumer advocacy initiatives, both private and government-based. This trend in death care is often attributed to the late journalist Jessica Mitford’s classic 1963 book The American Way of Death. In that book was reprinted in 1973 and 1998 and was a major inspiration behind many other consumer-oriented books including the hugely popular Profits of Death by industry insider Darryl J. Roberts.

Death CareBefore these books began to turn the tide in death care, local funeral homes across America spent decades establishing funeral and burial “traditions” that customers, in their quest to be done quickly with the uncomfortable arrangements of death, followed mostly without question. When activists such as Mitford (and others) began to notice that many of these traditions were expensive and unnecessary, the industry began to see changes, slowly-but-surely. The journalists wrote stories about customers who had discovered, after the fact, that in their moment of emotional weakness, they had fallen prey to aggressive sales tricks of funeral directors and cemetery operators. When people across the country began to realize that funeral homes and cemeteries were charging hundreds or thousands of times more for death care services than was necessary (in some cases, for example, a family would be charged $100 for the use of a funeral home coffee pot for one hour or $500 for the use of the home’s parking lot during a service), a wave of consumerism brought reform to death care. The United States government eventually stepped in with a large public investigation into death care practices that resulted in the Federal Trade Commission's "Funeral Rule" in the late 1980s.

Under the new rules, funeral homes across the United States can no longer require that certain services (such as embalming) be performed as part of ceremonies they host. Likewise, funeral homes must also now allow customers to buy caskets and other funeral products from other sources. And, finally, they must provide a written, itemized list of their services during their very first visit with a customer (and, of course, they must be willing to provide this price information verbally over the telephone upon request).

Death CareWith these changes, death care in the United States has changed somewhat dramatically. More and more families are coming to realize that there truly is no such thing as a "traditional" funeral or burial today, and creative death care options are now emerging with exciting regularity. Cremation urns, caskets and even headstones are now available from hundreds of different suppliers at prices well below those charged by traditional death care firms, and the types of services are changing as well. Funerals are no longer confined exclusively to a funeral home chapel, and burials no longer have to be done in a traditional cemetery.

In short, while consumer activists and watchdog groups are still certainly necessary to keep death care as robust industry for customers, there is still room for advancement. Many state legislatures have listened to high-powered death care industry lobbyists and adopted rules that all-but undue some of the consumer protection provided by the federal government. But the good news for consumers is that, completely reversing the protection will be very difficult and long process, that, with adequate vigilance on the part of watchdogs and activists, will likely never come to pass.

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