I hope every funeral and cemetery professional will read the article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post entitled “Funeral Business Feeling Six Feet Under.” I read it with great interest and have made some observations which I would like to share with my friends.
It is interesting that this news piece should come so closely on the tail of the “AARP – Rest In Peace” article which I responded to many month ago. What I at once found interesting about Mr. Milbank’s writing as I immediately did with the AARP piece was this endless supply of death/funeral one-liners that journalists seem addicted to using.
In my response to the AARP article, I listed the ones I personally have collected over the years and that was many to be sure, but I am going to have to own up to the fact that Mr. Milbank has taken the award for the most one-liners I have ever read in one brief article.
Here is the list I compiled. Honestly, there must be a death/funeral thesaurus out there somewhere. Anyway here goes:
1. “dying for more bad news”
2. “grave new indicator”
3. “is in a hole”
Now, these three literary gems were included in the first paragraph alone, which only contained 25 words in total. Let’s go on:
4. “the Grim Reaper tends not to”
5. “quite an undertaking”
6. “gets deep-sixed”
7. “funeral business is buried”
8. “shuffle off this mortal coil”
9. “or the stiffs”
10. “deadly serious”
11. “draped in black fabric”
12. “looks like death these days”
13. “cutting grass beats pushing up daisies”
This is an 18-paragraph article containing 13 one-liners. Great journalism!
Now on to content. The funeral profession is not particularly connected to economic trends, but the funeral is connected in a big way to social, cultural and religious trends. The increase in cremation, in shorter funerals, in changing casket preferences, is not based on economics – it is not based on a sudden consumer money spending movement that all of a sudden decided to “save” money on funerals due to 2009 conditions.
The social movements toward cremation and shorter funerals started years ago and have continued whether or not the economy is in the tank or is booming. To combine the Grim Reaper with the stock market is utterly absurd. Even the funeral corporations, which are connected to the stock market, do not represent the majority of funeral homes. The majority of funeral providers in this country are still mom and pop in small town USA.
Mr. Milbank makes reference to “funeral luncheons” in a manner in which the reader gets the impression that there are big bucks in funeral luncheons. Not true. Most times the funeral home has absolutely nothing to do with the typical funeral luncheon except for holding onto the hope that the funeral home staff will be invited to partake in some mighty fine food.
True, some funeral homes provide room for receptions and a few actually can make arrangements for a catered affair, but to imply that moving from a catered affair to cheese and crackers is a significant economic impact on the funeral indicates that Mr. Milbank has NOT attended many typical funeral luncheons in the basement of a church.
I almost burst out laughing when Mr. Milbank described the news conference and said the funeral representatives were sitting at a table “draped in black.” Give me a break, for God’s sake. I have given thousands of seminars in thousands of hotels, in the Mayflower itself, and all the tables are not draped but skirted in black – that’s what they call it, skirting.
Let’s move on. Lastly Mr. Milbank’s includes as one of the list of “woes” in the funeral profession as being “deadbeats who don’t pay their loved ones’ funeral bills.” Can he be serious? It is wrong for a funeral director who has performed essential services to the living and the dead to not get paid. Does Mr. Milbank live in a different country? Good heavens, how long would the Washington Post survive if “deadbeats” did not pay their subscription bill and the advertisers fudged on paying their bills? OK, enough about Milbank.
There are some essentials concerning this article that as a funeral director and a person who loves funeral services I need to express.
I have crossed the paths of many of the funeral representatives included in this article and I have found them to be level-headed, competent, caring and good individuals. Having a “summit” concerning funerals combined with money, combined with recessions, combined with products, combined with any of the items that Mr. Milbank wrote about is always an extremely challenging ticket for anybody. It just seems that the media cannot shake the fact that funeral directors need to make money – just like reporters do.
I cringed when I read the idea about federal help concerning funerals, and I suspect that much of what was in the article was misinterpreted, which happens all the time in working with the media. However, what the article failed in a big way to include was that for years the federal government has contributed to helping families financially in a significant way, as have most county governments in all states.
The Veterans Administration, Social Security, Medicaid, County Welfare and other government agencies have assisted, but of course not remotely in the direction of what was indicated in Milbank’s article – if indeed and in fact that is what was meant. I mean the members of the summit were really not quoted much; Milbank was more interested obviously in his pithy one-liners.
I have found it fascinating over the years that people in almost any other line of work can talk, analyze, project, complain, predict, speculate, review, report and fantasize about money – except funeral directors, and when they do discuss money, and the media is involved, there is sure to be trouble around the corner – NOT FAIR PLAY!
Years ago, I would have breakfast every morning with several other businessmen in my community. Every morning one or two of them would bemoan the state of their particular businesses. The hardware store operator would complain that nobody was buying hammers, and everybody would assure him that things would improve; the car dealer complained that car sales were in the bucket, and everybody would assure him that things would improve. Then if I chimed in and confessed that I had not had a funeral in over a month, all my “good buddies” would in unison say, “Good, great, that’s a good thing – NO ONE IS DEAD IN OUR TOWN.”
So in the end, my conclusion of Milbank’s article and the summit is that no one is ever going to feel sorry for the woes, concerns and problems of the undertaker – we can expect no sympathy from anyone even though we spend most of our lives extending sympathy to others. Anyway, that is one old undertaker’s opinion.