Magazine article Insight on the News

Funeral Industry Colludes with Clergy to Fleece Laity

Magazine article Insight on the News

Funeral Industry Colludes with Clergy to Fleece Laity

Article excerpt

Most people have heard stories of unscrupulous funeral directors who employ shrewd sales techniques and outrageous markups to prey upon their clients' emotional vulnerability. What most people do not know is that a good number of their local family churches are aiding the mortuaries in their rip-off schemes.

According to the Rev. Henry Wasielewski, a board member of the Interfaith Funeral Information Committee, the jig goes something like this: The funeral director for a giant corporate mortuary will approach your local pastor or priest and say words to the effect of, "We were going to give $5,000 to the Red Cross this year but, you know, we decided why not keep it in the neighborhood. I notice your parish doesn't have a bus. Now, I know the money won't buy a bus but we thought it could help. I'll just write out this check to you and trust that you'll know the best way for it to help the church." The pastor then starts to figure, I'd better send some bodies to that mortuary or they might not donate to my church again.

In such a way, pastors across the country have become beholden to the mortuary chains, circulating their promotional calendars or, if the mortuary is really lucky, broadcasting an endorsement straight from the pulpit. Trusting the pastor's judgment, the flock simply surrenders their loved ones to these mortuaries, never realizing that the funeral directors jack up their prices by thousands of dollars and, in the solemn words of the Rev. Wasielewski, "screw these Christian families to the wall."

At a recent retreat, Wasielewski heard a variety of stories about morticians coaxing favors from pastors by offering free gifts including beepers, funeral plots, sides of beef, countryclub memberships and large sums of cash. "It's a good deal for the mortuary" spouts Wasielewski with incredulous laughter. "I mean, here's a beeper that they pay about $6 for and the pastor is going to figure, I'd better send some bodies or they'll take back my beeper. So the mortuary rips off another family for $5,000."

The growing collusion between church officials and the mortuary chains has been nourished by the increasing domination of the $25 billion funeral industry by corporate chains. In the last five years the big three of the funeral industry --Loewen Group Inc., Services Corporation International (SCI) and Stewart Enterprises -- have accelerated price hikes quicker than the rate of inflation of a Third World nation. With mortuaries increasingly accountable to stockholders, as opposed to the neighborhood families, profits have become the sole order of business. The average funerary cost at an independently owned mortuary is $4,700. "But we're seeing more like $10,000 at chain-owned funeral homes," snarls Lisa Carlson, author of the book Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love. …

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