It Costs Money to Die
Forty-five years before Jessica Mitford's exposè of the funeral industry, Paul Blanshard found out just how expensive dying can be.
AMONG certain ancient tribes it was the custom to throw upon the funeral pyre the clothing, jewelry, and money belonging to the deceased. Occasionally a widow or a slave was thrown in for good measure. We in the United States do nothing so foolish. We merely throw into the grave annually several hundred million dollars. We throw it in in the form of bronze caskets, flowers, stone cases, silk paddings, gold handles, and mausoleums.
The corpse does not know the difference. Most of the American people if asked indi-vidually whether or not they wanted an ostentatious funeral would reply that they cared nothing whatever about what happened to their bodies after death. Yet the extravagant funeral is always with us. In fact, the United States has the most extravagant funeral practices in all history and they seem to be getting more costly every year. The prodi-gious waste and suffering wrought by our funeral customs are set forth in a study re-cently published by Putnams* and written by John C. Gebhart after a thorough investi-gation which was financed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Consumers of caskets ought to study this book -- and, in this particular, every citizen is an ultimate consumer. Mr. Gebhart follows up and completes the research begun by earlier writers including Quincy L. Dowd and Frederick Hoffman.
A funeral could be had in the United States before the Civil War for $25. Gebhart prints the bill of a Boston funeral in 1829 for $8. A funeral today for a Boston citizen of the same class would probably cost $400. Between the $8 bill and the $400 bill there is the difference of a century, face veils, limousines, professional pall-bearers, metal caskets, cast-stone vaults, chapel palms, newspaper notices, and morticians. But the greatest of these is the mortician. One cannot study the development of American funeral customs without being forced to the conclusion that the mortician is the bird of prey in the whole funeral system. He is a very suave bird whose claws are concealed by the reverential padding and plumage that surround the grim economics of death.
Not that the mortician is a fiend. He is an American business man operating in a field where the normal safeguards of competitive commerce break down. His customers are numb with grief or confused by inexperience. By tradition they cannot resort to the co-quetry of the bargain counter; they cannot shop for cheaper caskets. They deliver them-selves to the undertaker as to a friend, or the friend of a friend or a man who has a nice voice, or is a member of the Elks, or a deacon in the same church. One of the reasons why the casket customer gives himself so unquestioningly into the hands of the morti-cian is that there is no accepted and well-advertised bargain counter to which he can go. The funeral industry is like the retail trade of this country before the rise of the great department store and the chain nickelorium. Every city is cursed with too many corner undertakers who are expensive and inefficient, and there are too few competitive con-solidations of morticians who practice mass production.
Supersalesmanship applies its pressure at the point of family pride when sales resis-tance is subnormal. I treasure as one of my choicest Americana the speech of Clifford Askin, an Indianapolis undertaker, before the morticians of Tennessee, as reported in the July Southern Funeral Director.
I wonder [said Mr. Askin] when your friend's son or daughter gets married if you are the first to drop by and offer to furnish chairs for the party or wedding, or do you wait until he calls you up over the phone or comes to see you? We are losing an opportunity if we happen to meet him on the street and do not offer him our chairs or call him on the phone. That is service.
When you send a funeral out of your town or city and they are coming back on the train this afternoon or 8 o'clock in the morning, are you at the train to meet them when they come back and carry them to their homes? No, you say, their friends will meet them, that is sufficient. That is sufficient as far as transporta-tion is concerned, but are you losing an opportunity to manifest personal interest and perhaps a personal service? . . .
Are you mailing out to the friend or the family a card after the funeral giving the section or number and the grave number and the lot number, stating if there are other members of the family who would like the small card, you would be glad to furnish on request? Well, you are not -- and if you are not you are losing an opportunity for service and an opportunity for contact with that family.
Much could be accomplished toward cheapening funerals by the lenders of the industry itself if they would pass from this personal and individual stage of merchandising to large-scale standardization and selling. Mr. Gebhart hopes that the funeral industry will thus reform itself from within and he points to the newly organized Funeral Service Bu-reau of America which has taken up the problem of cooperating to reduce costs among a few powerful firms. This optimism seems scarcely justified. Far better would be a de-velopment in America of the municipal funeral system of Europe which Mr. Gebhart de-scribes.
Frankfort, for example, has only one private undertaker, and he is of no importance. Vir-tually every citizen who dies is buried by the Municipal Burial Office and practically the same kind of funeral is provided for everyone. But the family of the poor man pays less than the family of the rich man because the charge is levied in proportion to income. For a complete funeral including casket, transportation, burial robe, and grave the charge is not more than 3 per cent of the annual income for an adult and three-quarters of 1 per cent for a child under one year. But the maximum charge is $57.12. So Frankfort achieves democracy in death. Many other continental cities have similar socialization of funerals, but most of them do not insist upon the same grade of funeral for all citizens. The Municipal Burial Office of Vienna has eight classes of funerals ranging up to $300. Cologne's cheapest funeral is $19.04.
Compare with these figures the cost of the average American funeral! Rich families in America commonly spend several thousand dollars on a funeral. They make the occa-sion an exhibition of conspicuous economic success -- and the poor imitate them. Italian widows in New York who are so poor that they receive pensions from the New York Board of Child Welfare still manage to spend an average of $421 to bury the husband and father. That is more than half of their total net assets and usually it comes out of in-surance which they have skimped to pay. The average net funeral bill of probated es-tates in New York County is $772.
The most inexcusable item in these average bills is the item on which the undertaker subsists, the charge for the casket. I have found by investigation that a reasonably dig-nified and beautiful casket can be made for $15. The average mortician unites with the casket manufacturer in pawning off on the bereaved customer a casket which is worth perhaps two or three times that amount for $500 to $5,000.
Some people wonder why the problem of funeral costs cannot be solved by cremation. Cremation is probably a good thing in itself but it does not at the present time afford an escape from expense. A casket is required by custom before cremation just as it is re-quired before burial, and the cost of cremation is still high. Gebhart says concerning crematory costs: "Some urns sell for as much as $1,500, while the average rental of columbarium space is probably no cheaper than the ordinary grave and family plots." Undertakers commonly sell expensive caskets to customers for use before cremation and then strip the caskets of the costliest trappings before incineration.
Why cremation should cost as much as it does is not altogether clear. The growing popularity of the custom may ultimately reduce charges. Meanwhile cremation is saving for the use of the living a considerable amount of valuable land near our great cities which would otherwise be dedicated to the dead. If all our dead were cremated we would save at least 22,000 acres of such land every year.
The development of municipal funeral bureaus in America would be the sanest and most obvious answer to the problem of funeral costs, but there are few cities in America progressive enough to fight private-ownership propaganda successfully. The gestures toward cheaper funerals by funeral directors' associations will probably be nothing more than gestures unless the present price level of the industry is challenged from the out-side. Perhaps the wisest step in the direction of relief would be the formation of a limited dividend corporation headed by philanthropic citizens which attempted to market funer-als and funeral paraphernalia at civilized prices. Considering the toll of suffering and ex-ploitation among the poor because of the present system of profiteering it is strange that no such experiment has been tried on a large scale.
* "Funeral Costs." $3.50