The Who is Who in Death Care
Deathcare is a Multibillion Dollar Industry - Who are the Big Players?
The United States Center for Disease Control reports that 2,712,630 people died in 2015, about an average year by all accounts. And several national reports indicate that the family and friends of those people spent a total of more than $15 billion that year on funerals, cremation, burial and other products and services of the “death care” industry (sometimes referred to by industry insiders as simply “death” or even “big death.”)
Deathcare, clearly, is a big (and growing) industry. And, like any major US industry, it has its share (some insiders might even argue more than its share) of insider politics that ultimately affect everyone who attends a funeral or even read an obituary in any given year. The industry even has a few folks whose full time job is simply to keep up with all of that politics.
Given the emotional nature of death care – and the large amount of money the average US family spends for a funeral (anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 depending on the study) – plenty of “Average Joe” consumers join the political fray each year, becoming involved in the consumer advocate side of the death care after encountering distress when planning a loved one's memorial service. For these new comers – and for folks just wanting to make sure they are getting the best possible prices and services out of the industry – the industry can be an overwhelming maze. This guide to the major players in each of the industry's political sectors will help demystify the maze.
The One Who Started It All: Jessica Mittford
Investigative journalist Jessica Mittford was the first to make death care political. Her 1963 book The American Way of Death became a bestselling attack on funeral home practices that, to that point, had evolved unchecked in the United States. She exposed monopolistic industry practices that created artificially inflated prices, and she raised plenty of questions about the necessity of embalming and the other opulent, wildly expensive funeral and burials commonly sold to families (via passively aggressive, high pressure tactics). As alternative to the “traditional” funeral that the modern undertaker had managed to bring to its golden age in the early 20th century, the book noted the inexpensive simplicity of cremation.
Mittford's cleverly written expose captured the imagination of thousands upon thousands of readers who helped increase its stature to the point that it is now often included in university textbook anthologies of great American literature. And a political movement began.
The first stop for Mittford's protegees was Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. Where (albiet after 20 years of debate) Congress passed The Funeral Rule in 1983. This new law required funeral homes to change many of their traditional practices deemed abusive and empowered the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the changes. Among other things, funeral homes became required to be up front about their pricing, from the very first contact with a family. Non-negotiable General Price Lists of all their services were to be shared immediately with everyone who inquired about their services, even via the telephone. Special penalties were also provided for funeral homes who mislead customers about their legal necessity of their services (including embalming and even burial).
Mittford notes in her 1996 revision of American Way of Death that The Funeral Rule did appear to have some effect on funeral home practices and prices, but that the activists she inspired still had plenty of work left to do.
“Cremation, once the best hope for a low-cost, simple getaway, has become increasingly expensive for upgrading this procedure in a full-fig funeral. The Federal Trade Commission's much heralded trade rules has huge loopholes. Most sinister of all is the emergence over the last fifteen years of monopoly ownership of hitherto independent mortuaries and cemeteries,” she wrote to close out the introduction to the revision. “These developments are the main reason for this updated version of The American Way of Death.”
The consumer advocates included in this list will all likely testify that, overall, little has changed since those words published just a few months before Mittford's death. (Though there is perhaps some solace in these numbers: Mittford's reportedly cost just $533.31, and her cremation just $475, well below the average price for 1996.)
With the publication of The American Way of Death came a consumer advocate movement for the death care industry (helped along, perhaps, by the rise of a consumer advocate movement, in general. The 1970's, of course, are well noted for the birth of this movement with the likes of Ralph Nader – who rose to fame by championing automobile safety issues and then went on to mount a run for the United States presidency). This movement has spawned the following groups that have become important voices in the politics (and history) of death care.
Funeral Consumers Alliance:
This organization is the owner of probably the most famous URL in deathcare: funerals.org. Founded by activists inspired by Jessica Mittford's American Way of Death, this group has a main office in Vermont, but supports 46 local chapters and 70 funeral planning societies across the United States.
Since the early 21st century, FCA has become known by journalists across the nation as a reliable source for consumer-oriented information and commentary about the death industry. Most major news pieces about the industry now feature at least one quote from an FCA representative familiar with whatever topic is being discussed.
Consumers who have issues with their local funeral homes violating either the letter or the spirit of The Funeral Rule have found that they can contact their nearest FCA chapter for support, information and advice, and many families who initially contact the group end up becoming volunteers after their issue is resolved.
Current FCA executive director Josh Slocum is the co-author of Final Rights: Reclaiming the American Way of Death. He and Lisa Carlson -- who served as a board member then executive director of FCA before turning the job over to Slocum in 2003 -- wrote the ground breaking, book-length follow up to Jessica Mittford's original effort. The latest book, published in 2011, bills itself as “The book the funeral industry doesn't want you to read.”
Funeral Ethics Organization:
Founded by Lisa Carlson, former executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, this organization's work dovetails with that of the FCA but seems most intent on pushing for reform from within the death care industry itself (as opposed to educating consumers and promoting consumer activism). It's board consists mostly of leaders small death care firms (as opposed to the FCA which is led by death care consumer activists).
“FEO's mission is to promote ethical dealings in all death-related transactions by working for better understanding of ethical issues among funeral, cemetery, memorial industry practitioners, law enforcement, organ procurement organizations, and state agencies, as well as better understanding between these and the general public,” the organization's website says.
The FEO has drawn its share of legal fire from high profile leaders in the death care industry who have regularly accused it of slander and libel in its various public commentary, including the PBS 2004 documentary A Family Undertaking. The group, accordingly, has devoted much of its resources over the years to court battles. In the most prominent, and prolonged, of these fights, Thomas Lynch, a prominent Michigan funeral director who publicly debated industry issues with Carlson for years, claimed that Carlson various public characterizations of him and his family business amounted to slander. The Funeral Consumers Alliance was also named in the suit. A federal judge in Michigan eventually ruled against Lynch in 2009.
From an FCA press release about the ruling:
“'We’re delighted the court has upheld FCA’s right to free speech,' said Joshua Slocum, Executive Director. 'The Constitution protects Americans’ right to engage in vigorous public debate, and that includes criticizing the words and deeds of public figures like Mr. Lynch. Simply because the target of that criticism does not enjoy it does not make such critique illegal. FCA will continue commenting on matters of importance to funeral consumers, and that commentary may take the form of critiquing the writing or statements of prominent funeral directors. We expect this ruling will discourage any disgruntled funeral industry figures from attempting in the future to intimidate and silence consumer organizations through legal bullying.'”
Nevertheless, the money and time Carlson (who, as the Detroit Free Press noted in 2008, was 70 years old) and the FEO devoted to the Lynch case apparently spelled an end to the lions share of FEO's efforts.
“FEO suspended publication of its newsletter during the drawn-out legal wrangling with Thomas Lynch and his lawsuit,” the FEO website says on its Newsletter page. “At this time, mailing a printed newsletter is not within our financial means. But do check back from time to time to see what new things we've posted on the website.”
The website, while still functional, seems to have not been updated since that case was resolved.
Order of the Good Death:
The Order of the Good Death was founded in 2010 by Caitlin Doughty a disillusioned mortuary employee who documented her time in the death care industry in the witty – if slightly grotesque -- 2014 book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons From the Crematory While generally supportive of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, the Order of the Good Death tends to take a more down-to-earth, spiritual approach to death care reform (and is, accordingly not quite as caught up in legislative efforts and such). Doughty's goals seems to be more social than political:
“The Order is about making death a part of your life,” the Order of the Good Death website says. “Staring down your death fears—whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety of modern culture is not.”
Throughout the website, as well as throughout Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Doughty bemoans modern funeral and burial traditions that purposely discourage family members from being involved. She promotes the view that death is a significant part of life and should be valued as such (or, at least, that families should be afforded that option via the modern death care industry). Her vision is of a death care industry “where the family could be involved with the process, and the dead weren’t hidden behind closed doors (or closed vans).”
The Order of the Good Death, then, advocates for families wanting to be much more heavily involved in their memorial ceremonies that tradition (and often even law) currently allow. Members of the order promote “home burials,” “green burials,” and even “death midwifery. All of these are traditions that, Order of the Good Death members will point out, have been part of “death” for centuries, but, thanks to modern funeral traditions as established throughout the 20th century by the rise of the modern funeral home, now seem new.
Accordingly, the Order, when it does get involved in legislative lobbying, argues against laws that require families to do business with a funeral home or mortuary, laws, for example, that require a funeral director's signature on a death certificate or that forbid hospitals from releasing remains directly to a family.
In general, the Order offers a community for the growing number of people (and families) who desire that their family funerals be, strictly speaking, family affairs, run entirely by family traditions rather than by funeral home traditions (all of which, in the end, were developed according to a profit motive, Order members are often quick to note).
For anyone wanting to plan – and help other families to plan – an inexpensive, meaningful funeral in which family members are heavily involved, The Order of the Good Death is the group to join.
Industry Trade Groups and Publications
Many uninitiated people – for example those who find themselves suddenly losing a loved one and relying upon the services of a funeral home or mortuary for the first time – do not realize that death care, like any other multi-billion dollar industry has a number of strong, well-funded trade groups and publications working on its behalf in the political and media realms. These groups keep up with national (and even international) issues that affect the death care industry, and they speak for the industry to politicians and reporters. They also produce their own media – a myriad of trade publications and newsletters – that help those in the industry stay connected to the issues and adjust their business practices and goals accordingly. Though many involved with the consumer advocate groups listed above may be tempted to paint these trade groups with a broad, negative brush, it is clear that overall motivations of these groups are pure and reasonable: to protect and promote a livelihood that offers a wide variety of valuable services to consumers who desire, and need, those services. Many of these groups offer deathcare industry-specific training, accreditation and certification for individuals and businesses alike and, therefore, are often a good first-stop for consumers who believe their local funeral home, mortuary, or cemetery may not be operating in the consumer's best interest.
National Funeral Directors Association
The NFDA, based in Brookfield, Wisconsin with an office in Washington D.C. says it has more than 20,000 individual members who represent more than 11,000 funeral homes in the United States and 49 other countries across the world. It's mission statement is as follows: “Through education, information and advocacy, NFDA is dedicated to supporting members in their mission to provide families with meaningful end-of-life services at the highest levels of excellence and integrity.”
The organization offers a variety industry conference each years, lobbies on behalf of its membership on national issues related to the death care industry, and holds its members accountable to a code of conduct. The NFDA also, perhaps in response to advocates such as Funeral Consumers Alliance, offers a number of “consumer advocacy efforts,” including a toll free consumer telephone line (open 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. weekdays) that fields calls from funeral home customers who have questions about or problems with the industry as a whole or with an individual establishment or licensed funeral director. That number, available on the NFDA website, is 800-228-6332.
The group has nearly 50 paid employees who produce a number of conferences and publications each year, offer a variety of educational opportunities for its members, and develop strategic plans for the industry.
The NFDA also sanctions local associations in all 50 states and in the District of Columbia, and it maintains relationships with more than 30 “allied associations” across the United States and the world (including several listed below).
Cremation Association of North America
It seems likely that a significant theme of CANA's 100th annual convention (set, as of this writing, for 2018) will be a celebration of the fact that, in 2016, cremation accounted for the disposition of more than half of the deaths in the United States. This milestone for the cremation sector of the death care industry is in keeping with a worldwide trend and had been eagerly anticipated for at least two decades by cremation proponents and industry workers alike.
As cremation continues only to grow in popularity this group provides professional development and other educational certification for its more than 3,300 members across the globe. The group also helps consumers connect with certified cremation professionals and companies in their local area and maintains a wide variety of cremation-specific publications and other media outlets. It has recently even begun offering services for growing world of pet cremation, too.
CANA hosts a variety of articles and videos that may be useful to consumers considering cremation for a family member. Included in that is articles describing the cremation process, and tips for what to expect from a cremation provider. For more information, see the CANA website.
International Conference of Funeral Service Examining
This Fayetteville, Arkansas based organization is known simply as The Conference to death care professionals. It is the main testing and professional continuing education body for the industry: government agencies that regulate funeral homes, funeral directors, crematories, crematory workers, embalmers, and several other classifications of professionals in the industry rely on tests produced and administered by the ICFSE.
And that makes The Conference a great resource for consumers. The group's website offers a huge array of information that deathcare industry customers may find helpful when researching companies whose services they are considering. The site's trademarked “Look Up a License” section lists links to the death care industry's main regulatory bodies in all 50 American states and the District of Columbia. Consumers curious about their local funeral director or funeral home's state credentials will find that useful. The site also is a thorough clearing house of information about state and local laws regarding the death care industry, publishing a periodically updated compilation of licensing requirements and other rules for organizations and individuals alike.
This publication, and its publisher, legendary American Funeral Director Ron Hast, figure prominently in Jessica Mittford's American Way of Death. As the leader of the death care's most prominent publication in the 1970's, Hast was a prime target for Mittford as she assailed against the industry's traditional practices. Hast was always content to respectfully debate the reformer, though he rarely conceded points to her. His talking points in response to her criticism remain the death care industry's standard today.
Nemesis, though they were, Mittford and Hast remained cordial over the decades, and Mittford even acknowledges in her book that Hast, risking great backlash from his readership, invited her to speak – without censorship – at Mortuary Management conferences and write in the publication's pages.
A number of publications and blogs (such as this one) still speaking glowingly of the influential death care industry hero, but, after his passing in 2013, Mortuary Management, and its sister publication Funeral Monitor faded into history.
Funeral Service Insider
With a subscription priced of $345 per year (a typical rate for trade magazines in just about any industry), this death care industry news outlet is probably out of reach for all except professionals working in the industry. But it's publisher's website makes a few back issues available as samples for potential subscribers, and these samples give a glance at trends and other news that help shape the modern death care industry. Absent Mortuary Management, this publication (along with several other death-care specific magazines and websites produced by Kates-Boylson Publications based in Washington D.C. ) seems to have become the go-to news source for people working in the industry.
International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association
The ICCFA proudly bills itself as the only international trade association representing all segments of the cemetery (in contrast to the NFDA, which focuses almost exclusively on funeral directors and funeral homes). This means, as cremation continues to soar in popularity in the United States – and as the most outspoken consumer advocates promote cremation as the most economical, environmentally friendly method of disposition – the ICCFA, which has been in existence since 1887 stands to become more and more powerful as an industry political player. The other factor in this group's potential growth is cemeteries: many industry insiders expect that segment of the industry, possibly the least regulated of the segments, to become the target of new legislative initiatives as more and more small – even rural – cemeteries continue to be purchased by large corporations, bringing many unresolved legal questions to the forefront. As regulators become involved in these issues industry lobbyists will definitely become key to the debates, and, at the moment, ICCFA is the most established lobbying group representing cemeteries. The ICCFA is based in suburban Washington D.C. and has about 9,000 members. That number is likely to grow with the deathcare industry in general.
Regulatory Death Care Industry Groups
As with any industry, death care has its share of government regulators. (Though, consumer advocates will be quick to point out, this industry's regulatory groups tend to be smaller and less powerful than other, much more economically prominent industries.) The bulk of the regulation tends to be reserved for funeral directors and funeral homes, while crematories and cemeteries face fewer rules in most areas of the United States. But all of the segments of the industry face some sort of regulation, and much of the consumer advocate group's work involves working through these regulatory agencies to bring more public oversight to the industry.
State and Local Agencies
Each state, and even many individual municipalities, have separate agencies that oversee the deathcare industry. In most cases, these groups are called “Funeral Commissions,” but many states have adopted various other names. One of the significant complaints that consumer advocates have about these commissions is that they are often controlled (sometimes exclusively) by funeral directors themselves. Many industry critics and would-be reformers have made it their first priority to open the leadership of the state and local commissions to general members of the public rather than to industry insiders. That discussion has taken wildly varying forms across the United States.
Likewise, the rules and policies established by the various groups vary wildly also. Consequentially, rules regarding licensing of facilities and professions differ from local to local, and this often leads to miscommunication between death care establishments and their customers. It can also lead to fraud, such as in cases in which funeral home employees claim that certain services are required by law to be performed by licensed professionals. In many cases, consumer activists report, those claims are misleading or even false, resulting in consumers paying for services that, in truth, were never legally required. Intentionally misrepresenting state or federal law is, indeed, a federal violation under the Federal Trade Commission's Funeral Rule. But it is often the case that consumers simply do not know how to confirm whether a statement from a death care company representative is true. So, it's important that everyone who enters a death care establishment to, potentially, hire its services be fully abreast of current law for the locality in question.
Fortunately, the International Conference of Funeral Examining Boards publishes this comprehensive list of state regulatory agencies. Consumers would do well to use this link to find out what state-level group administers death care regulations in their area. A thorough inspection of that group's website, as well as a review of any laws, may turn out to be very valuable. Potential violations of state laws should be, of course, reported to the applicable state agencies, but consumers are advised that a misrepresentation of a state law by a death care company representative may be a violation of a federal statute and should be reported to the Federal Trade Commission citing the federal Funeral Rule described below. (It should also be reported at the state level, too.)
Federal Trade Commission
This federal agency became a significant player in the death care industry after Jessica's Mittford's American Way of Death inspired regulatory action by the United States Congress. In response to the mounting criticism of traditional funeral home practices, Congress approved the Funeral Rule in 1984, and this law established a host of rules for funeral homes and sanctions for those companies and individuals who violate the rules. (It is important to note that the rules do not apply to cemeteries, and they only partially apply to cremation facilities – usually those that are run by companies that also own funeral homes.)
The FTC is the agency charged with enforcing the funeral rule. And, consumer activists point out, the agency is also responsible for enforcing similar rules in dozens, maybe hundreds, of other industries, as well. So the effectiveness of its enforcement has long been in question. Some say the FTC simply does not have enough staff or other resources to investigate and prosecute the many violations that are reported each year.
Nevertheless, FTC and industry officials alike point to strong evidence that the industry has largely taken on a self-policing posture and that violations are, in the big scheme of the entire death care industry, very rare.
Whatever the case, consumers of death care industry services are best served when they are fully informed of the following: under federal law, the FTC requires that all funeral homes make General Price List readily available to all customers – usually upon their first contact. This page must list the establishment's non-negotiable prices for all services offered. Any variations offered to these prices, for whatever reason, are a violation of the Funeral Rule and open the establishment to the possibility of large fines.
Further, funeral home employees are required to be knowledable of all laws they cite to customers and their establishments can be fined if they misrepresent those laws in any way.
Full information about The Funeral Rule is available at the FTC website.
Large Funeral and Cemetery Corporations
While nearly 75 percent of the death care industry in the United States is made up of independent funeral homes, the industry is definitely big business, with a number of giant publicly traded companies dominating the revenues, the headlines, and the industry politics. And, as with the national and international politics of just about any industry, changes in the business are relatively constant, and the trend is almost always toward consolidation, with the largest, most competitive companies, buying smaller ones. It is for this latter reason that consumer activists and government regulators become important for helping customers get the most for their dollars. And at least one study show's evidence that, as with most other large industries, dealing with the largest of companies in the death care industry is not always the pathway to the best service or the best prices. To help families assure that they are getting the best prices and services during their time of need, we offer the the following, update on a list of a 2011 list of 10 companies that control the death inudstry.
Service Corp International
This Houstson, Texas based company is better known in the industry (and by stock exchange watchers) by its initials SCI. It is the, by far, the largest company in the United States death care industry. “United States” is key to that sentence: in the late 1990's, the company, founded in 1962, began a wave of international expansion, gobbling up cemeteries, funeral homes and other deathcare outfits in Europe and Australia, bringing its international total of properties to a peak of 4,500. Beginning with the turn of the 21st Century, however, competitive and economic pressures across the globe forced SCI into a change of direction – away from international expansion. The company also sold off many of its under performing US properties, and now owns a total of just 2,000 cemeteries and funeral homes. It's international presence is limited to North America, with just a handful of funeral homes in Canada. The vast majority of its properties are scattered across 45 US States and Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.
Observers of the company's business strategies often note that the sales of the US-based cemeteries and funeral homes helped pave the way for more significant expansion in the US throughout the early 21st Century. The company began the 1990's with more than 1,400 properties in the United States, and those kinds of numbers generally raise the attention of government regulators interested in keeping industry competition vibrant. The company continues to grow in the United States by buying smaller chains, but, to satisfy regulators' concerns over its latest buys, it has had to agree to immediately divest itself of some of the properties it has acquired. It seems feasible to say that, if SCI had had a much larger portfolio as it started its domestic expansion, the deals that ultimately were approved by the Federal Trade Commission might have faced more difficulty in the regulatory approval process. Accordingly, industry experts predict that, based on the environment of the current US deathcare industry, expanding far past its current 2,000 properties will likely be a political (or economic) impossibility. The United States Small Business Association reports that there are currently more than 21,000 funeral homes and other death care businesses in the country, and owning more than 10 percent of those might cause regulatory problems for SCI. The US Economic Census for 2018 reports that the death care industry's total revenues were approximately $33 billion while SCI's annual revenues average approximately $3 billion. So long as SCI's overall number of properties and overall revenues are less than 10 percent of the overall industry, regulators will likely not raise a significant amount of alarm. More than that, however, and expansion may prove difficult for the company.
The most important thing for consumers to realize about SCI is that it is the owner of many funeral homes and cemeteries that have been in business for decades. Since Jessica Mittford's American Way of Death have made critical note of SCI's practice of keeping references to the “corporate office” to a minimum at its local offices.
“In general, the plan is to acquire Johnson's Chapel of Eternal Rest and keep not only the name, but also Johnson himself, now installed as salaried manager, thus ensuring continuity of recognition and goodwill. When the occasion rises, you think of dear old Mr. J., honest old chap your family had dealt with over the years, and so you go to Johson's where Mr. J. greets you and leads you through the casket selection room and sign you up for the funeral. Little do you know that the Dear Departed has been whisked off for embalming elsewhere, to reappear looking twenty years younger, nicely made up, and elegantly dressed in Johnson's “slumber room, “ where friends and family may gather to say their last farewells. Nor do you know that Johnson's Chapel is now a highly predatory outfit where nothing's the same – particularly the prices.”
SCI rarely, if ever, changes the name of a funeral home or cemetery it acquires, and it's moniker rarely, if ever, can be found on a local outfit's stationary or even its website. Instead, customers can be sure they are dealing with SCI by looking out for any of the following brand names that are common to the company and generally on display at local cemeteries and funeral homes: Dignity Memorial, Dignity Planning, National Cremation Society, Advantage Funeral and Cremation Services, Funeria Del Angel, Making Everlasting Memories, and Neptune Society.
For families wanting to memorialize a deceased loved one, knowing whether a particular funeral home or cemetery is owned by SCI can mean a big difference in the price of the services rendered and good purchased. The Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America teamed up for a 2017 study that showed that the average price of a full-service funeral was nearly $2,500 less expensive at an independent, non-SCI affiliated funeral home than at a SCI establishment.
As Wikipedia points out, Stewart was the second largest death company in the United States. Just before its merger with SCI in 2013, the company owned 218 funeral homes and 140 cemeteries across the United States and employed more than 5,000 people.
Alas, it is now having been swallowed by SCI in a deal that regulators allowed after the new company agreed to sell 91 of its properties – 39 of which had belonged to Stewart.
Hillenbrande (aka Batesville)
This very diversified, publicly traded Indiana company is based in the hometown of the branch of the company that started it all: Batesville. Hillenbrande is comprised of an array of brands and branches that make many different types of products for a wide variety of manufacturing industries, but it's core business continues to be caskets produced by (and in) Batesville.
For at least 100 years, Batesville has stayed true to the vision of its founder John Hillenbrande: to be the casketmaker of funeral directors everywhere. The modern company has kept that vision alive by following its three step “Hillenbrande Operating Model” as outlined on its website: 1. Understand the Business, 2. Focus on the Critical Few and 3. Grow to Get Bigger and Better.
It's the second of those three steps that has drawn criticism from sectors of the deathcare industry that are not funeral homes: since its beginning, Batesville has sold its caskets, exclusively, to funeral homes staffed by licensed funeral directors. And critics often argue that helps funeral homes keep casket prices artificially high in this day in which online outlets – and even independent retail stores – offer caskets as well. Batesville's long-standing refusal to open itself to wholesale customers that are not funeral homes, means that a large portion of the industry (by many estimates, more than half) does not have access to Batesville's famous national distribution network, by which custom ordered caskets can be delivered in 24-48 hours to any funeral home in the continental United States. And this means, until another national distribution network can be established, most non-funeral home retail outlets must rely on traditional freight shipping contractors, which offer very unpredictable delivery times, often as much as two weeks. This makes ordering a casket from a non-funeral home simply impractical for most “at need” customers who do not have access to a place to store the casket until it is needed.
Non-funeral home retailers have, over the years, mounted a number of legal challenges, arguing that funeral homes can charge hundreds or thousands of dollars more for their caskets simply because Batesville refuses to make its delivery network open to all retailers. But, to date, those challenges have not found success, mostly because the country's non-funeral home retailers are served by an informal network of regional casket makers who can typically get their products delivered , in their regional area, in a competitive time frame. This issue for these regional casket makers, however, is they lack the economy of scale advantages available to the larger Batesville. So, while these companies can ship their caskets to retailers in a timely fashion, the added production and shipping costs (in relation to what Batesville has to spend) mean the ultimate retail price for the consumer is about the same.
As the deathcare industry evolves, consumer advocates remain hopeful that the smaller casket manufacturers who are willing to sell to non-funeral home retailers will grow to the point that they can compete with Batesville on an economy of scale basis. To support this end, advocates typically encourage families to buy their caskets from a non-funeral home retailer, even if the casket will be used in a memorial service hosted by a funeral home. They note that, in most cases, funeral homes are in violation of the United States Federal Anti-Trust act (and possibly some portions of the Federal Funeral Rule) if they attempt to dissuade customers from purchasing a casket from another source. This is a key area of focus of complaints that advocates hear from customers against funeral homes, and responding to this type of complaint is why some funeral directors have even begun encouraging Batesville to open itself to non-funeral home customers. As of this writing, however, Batesville has not seen fit to do that. It seems hard pressed to move away from it's founding philosophy: “Focus on the Critical Few”
Economies of scale are the bread and butter of Walmart's world-class, internationally based retail business. If anyone can create a nationwide distribution network to deliver caskets anywhere in the country fast, Walmart should be the company, right? That was the thinking in 2011, when this 10 Companies that Control Death Care list was first created. Walmart had just made national news (and raised a lot of curious eyebrows) when it announced (in about 2010) that it would enter the casket business. Walmart's chief competitor Costco (and then others) quickly followed suit, and industry observers simply assumed that it was just a matter of time before Batesville's controversial (some say monopoly-like) business relationship with the funeral homes of the United States would have to change.
It's true that Walmart and other national “chain” retailers still offer caskets via their websites some eight years later. All a customer has to do is log on and pick a casket, and have it delivered in as little as a day or two.
But this has proven to be not quite as popular an option as might have been assumed.
The trouble is, still, delivery.
Walmart's delivery service stops at its local stores. Customers wanting to take advantage of the discounted prices for non-Batesville caskets still will have to show up at a store, load the casket into a vehicle, and deliver it, personally to the funeral home in question.
That's just too awkward for all but the most thrifty of folks who have lost a loved one.
Meanwhile, websites abound in which -- yes, perhaps its not quite the same low prices as can be found at Walmart – customers can order a casket and have it delivered directly to a funeral home. So long as that is the case, Walmart (and the others) will continue to play only a relatively minor role in the deathcare industry.
Thought it is, by most accounts, now the second largest death care company in the United States, CSI is minuscule compared to SCI. (Less than 200 properties, less than 1000 employees and less than $50 million in annual revenues.)
This leads many industry observers to speculate that SCI will eventually absorb Carriage Services (something that most experts believe could be done without arousing a too much opposition from regulators, mostly due to Carriage Services's size.
Other than their size, Carriage has much in common with SCI. Both are based on Houston. Both publicly traded, and both are committed to a business model in which local properties make little, if any, reference to their corporate office when communicating with customers.
Rock of Ages Corp
Rock of Ages, based on Vermont, is the country's largest manufacturer of headstones and, as such, it has the potential to develop exclusive retail relationships with cemeteries much the same way that Batesville has created, over the decades, with funeral homes. But, to date, it has not followed that business model.
Instead, Rock of Ages sells its headstones via a network of more than 100 independent retail outlets across the country. These dealers typically offer headstones from other companies (including their own) as well. To date, Rock of Ages has not become overly involved in online memorials. Customers, generally, can purchase a Rock of Ages headstone (or other type of memorial monument) only in-person from a licensed dealer.
For Rock of Ages, the deathcare industry accounts for only a portion of its business volume. The company is perhaps best known for its many other types of granite art that it produces. Its statues and other works of art can be found across the nation and world as part of parks, schools, skyscrapers, and civic buildings of all sorts. The company even boasts tourism as one of its business sectors as its own corporate header quarters, thoroughly decked with museum quality state-of-the-art, granite décor is a significant tourist attraction for its hometown.
Matthews is the largest wholesale supplier for the world of cremation. Aside from cremation ovens and other equipment and supplies used by crematories, perhaps Matthews core business is its cremation urns. Matthews supplies urns for dozens of online retail sites and funeral homes alike. The company has drawn praise from death care industry consumer advocates because of its practice of opening its wholesale supply chain to all parts of the industry. It has been noted that this helps retailers of all types and sizes to compete on a level playing ground and results in healthy competitive pricing situations for customers.
As with Walmart, when this giant company announced it was getting into the casket retail business in about 2012, industry observers assumed it would revolutionize competitive pricing for caskets across the industry. But, also as with Amazon, delivery has prove the tricky point.
While Amazon does offer delivery directly to funeral homes, the significant expense involved in shipping individual caskets keeps Amazon's overall prices about as competitive as other, smaller retailers which can offer much more personalized, friendly service than the online retail giant. And, given the emotional nature of the deathcare industry, personalized service is a very key ingredient largely missing from Amazon's current offerings.
Pennsylvania based StoneMor is another large player, like SCI and Carriage Services International above. It operates more than 400 cemeteries and funeral homes across the US, so many of the issues already discussed regarding SCI and CSI also apply to it. But, unlike SCI and CSI, StoneMor's core focus is on burial, specifically pre-need plans.
Given this publicly traded retailer's massive online presence and efficient distribution network, it seems only logical that this company would be a significant player in the deathcare industry. (Some flower industry experts say that death care accounts for more than half of the flower market.) The company has not emerged as a monopoly in its segment of the deathcare industry, however, because most funeral homes offer their own flower shops that are able to offer highly competitive prices (and even more friendly and efficient services) than 1-800-Flowers. Many local, independent flower shops, likewise, have strong marketing relationships with their local funeral homes which helps them to stay competitive against the industry giant. So, while death care does account for a large percentage of 1-800-Flowers' sales, it can't be said to have an overly significant impact on the insider politics of the deathcare industry.
Like Batesville, Aurora has its humble beginnings in the late 19th century in Indiana. But, unlike its chief competitor, the company has not maintained a history of selling exclusively to funeral homes. This puts Aurora in a strong position, as the death care industry has evolved in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The company's base of wholesale customers includes retailers across the spectrum (from funeral homes to independent websites with no brick-and-mortar location) and therefore the offers plenty of room for growth as the death care industry grows. Beginning in about 2000, the company began focusing on cremation urns and other products for the world of cremation. As cremation gradually grows in popularity – and seems poised to stay at the top over burial – this will bode well for Aurora's long term health.