The Costs of Burial
Diary of an Anonymous Funeral Planner - Chapter 4
This is the 4rd of a series written by an anonymous man caught unprepared in the expensive web of “death care” in the United States.
My father was mentally ill, so talking to him about his eventual funeral and burial (or cremation) was a challenge. I, and several family members, tried several times in the last of his 76 years. But he always gave vague or conflicting answers to our questions. Perhaps it was an expensive mistake, but my family used our inability to communicate well with Dad as an excuse to simply do no planning for what we would do at his death.
And then his death came, very suddenly. Dad choked on some food and passed away within a few minutes. He had been in exceedingly good physical health until that moment.
So, my family – mostly my mother and I – were called to make many important decisions on the fly. In part's 2 and 3 of this series, I have already discussed how the suddenness of Dad's death put us in a precarious negotiating position that ended up costing our family thousands of extra dollars. (And I will repeat my overall claim that funeral homes and cemeteries purposely and cynically take advantage of their customers who, by the very nature of the reason for their requesting services, are much more financially vulnerable than an average business's customer base.) But in those articles I mostly focused on the exorbitant costs of the funeral services itself, with very little attention on the burial. In this article, I will share what my family and I learned, the hard way, about the pitfalls of burying a loved one in a cemetery.
Funeral Rule Does Not Apply to Cemeteries
Oh hindsight, it was out of an act of corporate defiance to The Funeral Rule that my mother and I ended up dealing with two sales people at Bay Shore Funeral Home and Cemetery. You see, all funeral homes in the United States are subject to rules that outlaw the many financially abusive, monopolistic practices that evolved naturally among funeral homes in the first part of the 20th century. But, probably by way of back-room compromise with “death care industry” lobbyists who are quietly stronger than a typical observer might realize, cemeteries were curiously excluded from the law.
Most large cemeteries these days are owned by companies that also run funeral homes. And, it's ostensibly out of respect for the Funeral Rule that these companies generally make it a policy to run the two parts of their business separately. Bay Shore employees were very careful to identify themselves to my mother and me as working for either the “funeral” side or the “cemetery” side. I suppose this is also done out of respect to anti-trust laws as well, but, to my knowledge, there is no legal requirement that it be done. (The case of eye doctors comes to mind. It was once the case, for example, that optometrists could not legally sell eye glasses as part of their optometry practice. As a consequence, many stores that sold glasses were located adjacent too – perhaps even owned by – optometrists office, but to comply with anti-trust laws, the operations were very carefully two distinct businesses that did not share employees or book keeping records. In the 1980's era of government deregulation, however, federal rules requiring this sort of arrangement in many industries were loosened, and, today's eye doctors can and legally do sell eye glasses directly as a part of their practices. The annoyance of separate entrances is no longer required. Customers, indeed, can do one stop shopping at their eye doctor's office, getting their exams and glasses or contacts all with one check and one receipt.) By my understanding of business law, funeral homes and cemeteries can legally mingle their money and other business operations, so long as they make no attempt to unfairly use their partnership to a competitive advantage (by, for example, requiring that all funeral customers also buy a grave plot from the company's cemetery).
So, why would Bay Shore so carefully separate its funeral home business from its cemetery – to the point that my mother and I would have to deal with two sales people.
I'm sure the company's corporate owners and managers are armed with a less cynical answer that they are eagerly ready to recite upon request. But I'll offer my view nevertheless: separating the two sides of the business gives the companies the legal ability to skirt the Funeral Rule – at least in respect to cemeteries.
It's instructive (and, I'll suggest, abusive) that Bay Shore's carefully constructed “General Price List,” required by the Funeral Rule to show customers a detailed list of all charges on the “funeral” side of the business, had no counter part on the “cemetery” side. When we realized that the prices for the company's grave plots varied according to their location in the park, we asked for a list of how much land cost in the various spots. No such list was available, we were told. We would simply have to rely upon hand written figures from the salesman. We had no guarantee that those prices were not somehow contingent upon how much (or little) funeral home services we bought. I had made it clear from the start that we would probably be buying my Dad's cemetery headstone from a different company. Were we penalized for that announcement with a higher-than-usual price quote for the grave site itself? It's difficult to tell. The GPL is intended to give customers some assurance that their prices will be uniform for all customers, and, though it's not a legal requirement, a company is certainly free to include cemetery products and services right along with funeral home listings. But, of course, funeral homes only begrudgingly offer the GPL (because it is something that was legally forced upon them in order to help correct abuses of the past). So there is plenty of motivation for them to carry on some of their abusive practices on the cemetery side of their business while still paying plenty of righteous lip service to the Funeral Rule.
How We Overpaid for Dad's Cemetery Plot
Suffice it to say that several family members are convinced (and I do have vague recollection that they are correct) that my grandfather had intended that his son be buried near him in a family plot he purchased decades ago. I will not delve further into that question here other than to say that the cemetery salesman assured us that there were no other grave spots available in the plot Grandpa bought. And my mother and I had no other evidence to the contrary. (If it is exists, it is likely in a U-Haul storage room filled with dozens of boxes and thousands of disorganized pages Dad kept on a huge variety of topics.) Accordingly, Dad is now buried by himself, amidst several other families, in a spot on the other side of the park. Some in our family, therefore, will argue that anything we paid to Bay Shore for Dad's burial was an overpayment. And, while I will leave that debate for, perhaps, another day, I am certain that we paid much more than necessary or justified for the burial in general. Here is an itemized list of what we paid followed by my commentary about each item.
The following fees, I am confident, could very well have been covered by the $3,778 “basic funeral home services” fee we paid to Bay Shore. (As I discussed previously in article 3 of this series, I have no idea what, exactly, that fee covered. No much that I or my family can see.) But, of course, since the funeral home and cemetery are, technically, separate entities, the company is, technically, justified in adding them to our bill. To be honest, it makes me chuckle to think of the evil ingenuity behind these charges:
Cemetery Processing fee – $95. As far as I can tell this fee covers simply the administrative task of writing Dad's name in the big book – soon to be transferred to computerized document, I'm told – that keeps track of who is buried where in the cemetery. In my last article, I said I would have offered the cemetery nothing for this service. But on second thought, I suppose a $5 payment -- assuming it was done by a friendly, helpful staff member -- might be okay.
Survey and Development Fee – $50. In a just pricing system, this would also have been included in the company's basic service fee. But it wasn't. And I have no idea why its necessary. This, to me, seems akin to a restaurant charging a “fork washing” fee for every meal. I don't think I'm going to be so generous by offering even $5 for this service as I was the processing fee above. No, I think I'll stick with an offer of $0 under normal negotiating conditions. If not part of the basic service fee, this needs to be something the cemetery pays for out of the money it makes on the burial plot itself.
Burial Plot – $2,250 – This was for a spot in, reportedly, the least expensive part of the cemetery. Homes in the neighborhood around the cemetery are selling these days for about $100 per square foot. Dad's grave is about 12 square foot. There is no home on the land. So I'd say, for anything other than an outrageously priced burial plot, the land would sell for about $500 total. That's what I would have offered for it anyway. Wow. All those TV shows about the “house flipper” industry have got it all wrong. It seems, the best thing to do, profit wise, is to buy a house, tear it down, and turn it into a cemetery (provided you have the conscience for re-selling the land to grieving families at such unfair prices. There is great money in heartless greed, apparently.).
Perpetual Care - $337.50 – The cemetery salesman told us that the perpetual care fee was a customary charge of 15 percent of the price of the plot itself. Well, I have no idea what it would cost to pay someone to edge and mow my dad's plot for 50 years or so, but my guess it would be about $20 a year or less (provided that the person doing the mowing was already going to be on the cemetery with his or her equipment doing other plots too). So, the $337 buys us about 17 years worth of mowing on its own, and, at an interest rate of 10 percent or so, we'd have enough to get us through just about eternity unless lawn mowing prices suddenly go the way of funeral prices in the next few decades. I'd be willing to offer a cemetery $337.50 for perpetual care, provided the company hadn't already gouged me on so many other charges – including the burial plot itself.
Interment Fee - $1250 – By my count, opening and closing my father's grave required about an hour of labor for two guys. Yeah, there was a fairly expensive piece of machinery involved, too. But I just can't see that a charge of $625/hour for grave digging services is in any way justified. I would have offered the cemetery about $150 for the job, and I was told just yesterday by a guy who does all types of digging on his road construction job that he would gladly accept that amount.
Grave Marker Setting – $259.20 The grave marker we plan to put on Dad's plot is very easy to install. I'd do it myself if the cemetery would allow it. But I definitely wouldn't offer to pay someone more than $50 to do that work.
Headstone – $1500. Because the cemetery is not required to make its prices for headstones readily available on its GPL, I do not yet know how much Bay Shore would ask for a headstone for Dad. I am certain that their prices will be much higher than this one, which is what I know I can buy a headstone for from an online store run by a friend of mine. On the off chance that I discover Bay Shore will sell me a headstone for even less than that, I doubt I'll take them up on the offer. To be honest, I'm a little sick of paying them money.
How much we paid for dad's burial: $5,741
What we would have offered had we had fair negotiating conditions: $2,542
Pre-Need Buying is Probably a Bad Idea
The cemetery sales guy gave my mother and me a sales pitch about a “pre-need” plan. He claims we would have saved a lot of money had Dad's burial arrangements already been paid in advance.
Probably not true. By paying in advance and letting the cemetery keep the interest, we actually would be coming out on the low end of things. Granted, a doubling in cemetery prices every 10 years (as the man said has been the trend) would, indeed, make it a bargain in most cases to lock in a burial at today's rates. But that's assuming the world continues to allow the cemetery industry to continue its customary price increases (that are atrociously out-of-sync with the rest of the United States economy).
I think my wife and I will just put some money in a high yielding money market savings account and have faith that God's light will eventually begin to shine in the leaders of “death care” in our country. As I say, my family has already put more than enough money into this corrupt system. I'm not relishing the idea of shelling out even more.
Continue To Chapter 5: Organizing The Funeral Service