Group Lobbies for Reform of Funeral Industry

James Green is dead. He's lying on a classroom table—eyes closed, hands across his chest—while Donna Belk, who lectures on do-it-yourself funerals, explains how to wash a corpse at home. "In my experience, bodies leak a negligible amount of fluid, but you may want to put a plastic sheet down, just in case." She turns to Green: "You don't have to do any leaking." The ersatz corpse cracks a smile and the dozen students in the room shout, "He's alive! He's alive!"

The playacting is part of the annual conference of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a watchdog group for the death-care industry that advocates simple, personalized and environmentally sound alternatives to the typical American burial.

Americans spend between $11 billion and $15 billion on funerals each year, and four major corporations account for 11 percent of the 20,000 funeral homes in the United States, tending to cluster in individual communities. The "big four"—Services Corporation International, Stewart Enterprises, Carriage and Stonemor—own just a quarter of the funeral homes in Seattle, for example, but own 80 percent of the funeral homes in Yakima, a few hours east.

FCA members from across the country gathered in Seattle last June to attend seminars on home funerals; "green burial," including caskets made from recycled paper; and, most important, educating the public on how to navigate what many members consider a corrupt and ossified industry.

"The funeral corporations use predatory sales tactics and aggressive marketing to get people—who are in shock—to spend more than they can afford on services they don't want or need," says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the FCA.

The lobbyists for the death-care industry, Slocum claims, have pernicious influence over state legislatures. In 2006, he got a call from a Native American couple whose 3-year-old died in a hospital while they were visiting Salt Lake City. The parents wanted to take the body home to Idaho for a traditional funeral. Hospital staff refused, telling the parents that according to a Utah law passed that year, the death certificate could only be signed by a licensed funeral director, which would have meant that the body would likely have had to be given temporarily into the custody of a funeral home. Luckily, with the help of an alternative burial group, the couple was able to take custody of their child's body, but the case indicates the power the traditional funeral industry can have, Slocum argues.

"I want people to be shocked," Slocum says, "that in some states, the body belongs to the mortuary by state law. And once a funeral director has got a body in the door, it's over. They'll charge you from $1,200 to $4,000 for their 'basic services' fee. They've got possession of your dead and your wallet with the blessing of the state."

In 2005, the FCA filed a class-action lawsuit against Services Corporation International, Stewart Enterprises, Hillenbrand Industries and Batesville Casket Company, accusing them of breaking antitrust laws. According to the suit, the funeral-home chains conspired with Batesville Casket Company (which makes 50 percent of the caskets sold in the United States) to boycott smaller casket companies and pressure consumers to buy caskets at artificially inflated prices.

"The funeral-home defendants are charging about double for caskets that are identical to what you can get elsewhere," says Gordon Schnell, an attorney representing the class-action defendants. "You can buy caskets privately, on the Internet, at Costco—we want to get the word out that consumers have options."

Attorneys representing the defendants declined official comment, but one attorney affiliated with the defense (who spoke on condition of anonymity) said the case was "a typical example of entrepreneurial plaintiff-lawyers" pushing a suit without merit. "Batesville wants to control the distribution of their caskets," he said. "Lots of businesses use a selective distribution system: Rolex, Nike and every car manufacturer." He dismissed FCA as "just two employees in Vermont with an email list."

Despite the FCA's grim assessment of the American way of death, the mood at the convention was optimistic. Rates of cremation—a thrifty, environmentally sound option preferred by FCA members—are skyrocketing. According to the Cremation Association of North America, 32 percent of Americans who died in 2006 were cremated. CANA predicts that by 2025, 57 percent of Americans will choose cremation.

The "green burial" movement, which eschews embalming, metal caskets and concrete grave liners, is also growing and is finding an unexpected symbiosis with the land-conservation movement. Imagine 100 acres you want to preserve, says Mark Harris, author of Grave Matters, and you carve off 10 for a natural cemetery. The preserve could very well pay for itself—or even turn a profit.

"I tend to see the glass as half empty," Slocum admits, sipping a glass of wine at the FCA awards banquet. "But in the last five years, the number of calls I've gotten about green burial and home funerals have grown more than I could've even hoped."

"Still," Slocum adds, "there's a lot to do." He has, you might say, miles to go before he sleeps.