Is Something Wrong with this Picture?
In the spring of '97, The Pilot—a newspaper put out by the Boston Archdiocese—ran an ad for preneed funeral insurance for the Forethought Company, heavily promoted by Loewen-owned funeral homes. Return address for inquiries: The Pilot, Archdiocese of Boston, P.O. Box 282, Batesville, Indiana. Indiana?
In June of '97, Stewart Enterprises signed a deal with the Los Angeles diocese—to build mortuaries on the grounds of at least six Catholic cemeteries in the LA area.
In early spring '98, Loewen signed a deal to run the Catholic cemeteries in Tucson, Arizona.
By October of '97 the Funeral Monitor reported that Service Corporation International (SCI) had established a subsidiary, "Christian Funeral Services, Inc., dedicated to the management of funeral homes, cemeteries and related assets for Catholic dioceses throughout North America." In November, Death Care Business Advisor detailed the first project: a 66,000 sq. ft. funeral home, Centre Funeraire Cote-des-Neiges, which is nearly complete, on the grounds of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery in Montreal.
The Archdiocese of Chicago (Cook county and Lake county) currently gets 6-7% of its operating budget from its cemetery operations. If local chains get involved, will it go up?
Given the recent publication of "The Catholic Cemetery: A Vision for the Millennium" put out by the National Catholic Cemetery Conference, the above arrangements seem suspicious at best:
p. 11—"The canon law of the Church states that the Catholic cemetery is a sacred place."
p. 15—"The burial of the dead has always been recognized by the Church as a religious rite and a corporal work of mercy. . . . the common thread among all Catholic cemeterians is the exercise of ministry."
p. 41—"Catholic teaching, with its preferential option for the poor, makes clear our obligation to assist those in need."
p. 47—"To emphasize Church teachings and to promote the universal application of the Order of Christian Funerals, the Catholic cemetery may consider operating its own funeral home(s). This would restore its traditional role in funeral ministry . . . . In addition, this would allow the Catholic cemetery to more fully attend to its mission: . . . Fostering an atmosphere more attuned to the spiritual needs of the grieving . . . Ensuring a family with limited means that they will be treated with dignity and respect, and accorded a proper funeral and a decent burial."
Will corporations—beholden to their stockholders and with a history of exorbitant profits—suddenly reduce prices at the church-endorsed mortuaries in order to fulfill the spiritual and charitable mission of the Catholic Church? That seems unlikely lacking announcement of such a plan. In fact, industry-watchers—including some troubled priests*—predict that the price of Catholic funerals will go up, up, up . . . especially where there is a "captive" clientele.
Why do they think so? According to surveys done by nonprofit funeral-planning societies, the prices at funeral homes and cemeteries run by Stewart Enterprises are almost always the most expensive, well above other neighborhood prices. Stewart's midyear 10-Q report indicates a 49.8% profit on funeral home operations and 33.3% on cemeteries. The company's goals include a "revenue growth of at least 20%."
The prices at places owned by SCI and the Loewen Group follow a close second. In the midyear report to stockholders (June '97), SCI claimed a 22.5% profit on funeral home operations and 37.6% profit on cemeteries. Loewen claimed 39.7% on funeral home operations and 33.6% for cemeteries.
Yes, the Church will benefit from the rent and income from these operations. But at what cost to its members? Caring Catholics might want to ask. Those who can afford to pay for an expensive funeral but would prefer to feed the hungry instead of greedy corporations MAY want to shop somewhere else for a funeral if they don't like what they find at the new "Catholic" mortuaries.
The following is an e-mail sent to FAMSA, posted with permission.
Dear Madam/ Sir,
Following is a copy of a letter I have tried to send to the Georgia Ethics Board. Please read it and let me know if there is anything that I can do to resolve this situation.
Sharon M. Smith
Date: Fri, 26 Jun 1998 07:26:57 +0000
From: Sharon Marie Smith
Subject: Pine Ridge Memorial Park
I am not sure if you are the correct person to contact about my situation but I hope you can help.
My father died on February 1, 1998. On February 2, 1998 my mother and I purchased a marker for his grave at Pine Ridge Memorial Park. We selected a burial site based on the plans of the cemetery to build a fountain with benches near my father's grave. My father was a veteran of the Air Force and Navy. He was career military. Unfortunately, we did as many people do and did not make burial plans until my father died.
Upon arriving at Pine Ridge, the Manager —Tom— took us into his office to help us make decisions. We asked about the Veteran's Marker. We were told that they take a very long time to arrive at the cemetery (7 months at the minimum) [the VA reports 90 days] and that we would have to pay extra to have it installed at the cemetery and that the cemetery would not maintain a veteran's marker. Tom told us that if we bought a marker from them that my father's grave would not go unmarked and that they would place a temporary marker on his grave until the one we selected arrived. He told us he understood how we felt because he had lost his three-year-old son earlier the previous year and he would not have wanted his son's grave to go unmarked for a second. My mother told Tom that she could not pay the entire amount all at once. He told her that he would arrange for monthly payments and that it would not be a problem, he said that this way we could get the marker for the grave, have it installed, and make payments.
We selected and ordered a Pine Ridge Marker. The cost was over $4,000 for the internment and Marker. Several days after my father died I visited the grave and it was not yet marked. I decided to give it a little more time. During the subsequent two months I visited and still no marker (temporary or otherwise). I finally went to the office and asked about the marker. Here I spoke to Jack Stevenson. Mr. Stevenson told us that we had to order a marker in order to get a temporary marker. I told he we had ordered one and that it had been two months. I asked how long it took to get a temporary marker. I found out they have them in stock so there was absolutely no reason for my father's grave to go unmarked. The temporary marker was installed that day.
On Easter Sunday I visited my father's grave. Mr. Stevenson parked his car next to mine and, as I walked back to my car he approached me and asked me to fill out a Survey concerning the Cemetery. This seemed disrespectful to me and my family that our private moments would be invaded by a Cemetery Survey.
About a month later after visiting the grave I went to the office to find out about the Permanent Marker. Mr. Stevenson pulled the file and told me that they had a policy of not ordering markers until the total amount was at least half paid. I told him that this was not what Tom told us when we were sold the marker. Mr. Stevenson said that Tom no longer worked for them and that the situation we were in was not new and that Tom had put other families through the same thing. Fortunately, my mother had made some large payments in addition to the monthly payments and THE MARKER WAS HALF PAID FOR! The bottom line is that they were not keeping up with when to order the marker even by their standards — not the ones Tom told us about. Mr. Stevenson ordered the Marker. He told me it would arrive within forty-five days (By mid June, the marker would have now been on order approx. 5 months). Again I waited. On June 20, I called Pine Ridge and spoke to Dave Murray. He was very helpful. He told me that Mr. Stevenson no longer worked with families and that he would be glad to help me. I reviewed the story with him. He said he would look up the information on my dad's marker and call me back.
Dave Murray called back on Saturday afternoon and asked me if anyone had called me about the Marker. I said no. It seems that the Rosary Design my mother chosen as a border was not available on the size marker we had purchased and that call came approx. at the end of May ( I wonder if they were planning to call and ask us?). I asked him what should we do now because at this point I am thinking that we could have gotten the VA Marker for very little money out of pocket. The balance on the Marker we ordered was down to $1,400. I asked Mr. Murray about the Fountain near the grave site, and he told me no such plans were in the works. He then told me he would call the Marker company back, authorize the next larger size at no cost to my family because we had already been through so much. The Marker arrived on June 24. I was called to come to the Cemetery and approve the spelling, etc. before it was installed on my father's grave. The marker was very nice. Then Mr. Murray asked me how I wanted to pay the balance of $1,400. I told him my mother was making monthly payments and that she was two months ahead on those payments. He told me that they could not install the marker until it was completely paid for. I told him that at no time during all of my conversations with anyone at the Cemetery did anyone ever mention that I would have to have this completely paid for before the marker was installed. In fact, Tom told us the best way to proceed was to make monthly payments so the grave would not have to go unmarked and so we could have a permanent Marker long before the VA would ever send one. Then Mr. Murray called in Mr. Murphey and Mr. Murphey proceeded to explain that all Markers must be completely paid for before the marker was installed. (My mother was on a two year installment plan). I again repeated my story. He then told me that the administrative assistant Barbara was the only person who could make this decision and that I would have to contact her the next day, June 25. Mr Murphey asked if I could write a letter so they would have documentation if this request was denied by Barbara and they had to go to the "Board." Then they wanted me to sign off on the Marker approval. I would not. I told them I would not sign anything else until this matter was resolved. I also told Mr. Murray and Mr. Murphey that although they were not involved in the original plans and decision making that Tom represented this Memorial Park and that as consumers we had no choice but to take him at his word and we found out that his was not very good. I told them that we were involved in a relationship with them for a long time because my father was buried here and my family was close by and that we would be visiting frequently. It is disturbing and sad that the relationship seems to be destined to continue along the same vein.
I told Mr. Murphey that I would write a letter for him detailing the events that have transpired since February 2, 1998. I asked Mr. Murray about the fact that Tom had told us how we felt because his son had died earlier the previous year, and Dave Murray told me that this too was a lie.
Please help me to resolve this situation in any way you can. I feel that what Pine Ridge Memorial Park has done to my family and undoubtedly others is unethical, unfair, and even cruel considering the circumstances in which people seek them out for assistance with the death of a loved one.
Sharon M. Smith
4495 Brown Deer Lane
Acworth, Georgia 30101
Note: I spoke with Barbara the morning of June 25, 1998. I again told her this story. She told me that the account balance was $1,200 (the day before it was $1,400) but that they would install the marker because of all that had occurred. She also told me that she was obligated to tell me that this is not their usual practice and that if my mother "got behind" in her payments that they would remove the marker.
June 28, 1998: No Marker installed yet.
July 2, 1998: The temporary Marker was turned facing the other direction when I went to the graveside today. I went to the office. The two ladies (one of whom is Barbara) told me that the maintenance man was probably installing the permanent marker and got called away so he put the temporary back on backwards. I asked them to call me today before 2:30 or after 6:00 and let me know why this occurred.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 30 January 2008 01:41 )
Loewen Vet Scam
On a flyer picked up at the regional VA hospital:
The Military Gardens has been rededicated for veterans ex-service personnel and their families. Veteran space No Charge. Spouse and family members of veterans one half off burial space. Proof of honorable discharge required.
In the past ten years, thousands of veterans and their families have reserved their property so a limited number of spaces are still available Therefore, immediate preregistration is advisable. To receive your eligibility certificate and other valuable veterans information, fill out and mail coupon below or call:
Sunset Memorial Park
Cemetery & Funeral Home
2250 St. Anthony Blvd., N.E., Minneapolis, MN 55418
One WWII veteran and his daughter paid a visit to this Loewen-owned operation. The veteran and his wife live on a very limited social security income, so burial cost was a serious concern. The sales rep at Sunset told them that the national cemetery at Ft. Snelling was running out of space, so it was a good thing they came in. (This is a blatant lie. The VA predicts enough space to last another 50 years, and burial is free to veterans and spouses.)
The family was never given price information for all the available lots. Instead, they were shown to an area of high-priced lots (nearly triple the price of the least-expensive one quoted over the telephone to an inquiring caller three months later). The family didn't see any markings to indicate that what they were shown was the Military Gardens, but the whole experience was a bit overwhelming, they said. Telling them that urns and urn vaults were required, the sales rep cranked up the bill for the aging veteran and his wife—to over $3,400 for the burial of cremated remains on a single lot that was supposed to be "free"! No "other valuable veterans information" was forth-coming.
When this was brought to the attention of the regional VA office, one staffer called the cemetery/funeral home—"shopping" for the veterans' burial deal. He was told that he had to bring in discharge papers so they could be "sent to Washington, DC." When the staffer told the sales rep he thought they were already on file in St. Louis, the rep quickly replied, "Oh, yeah, that's the same place."
The angry staffer has since made sure all of the misleading flyers have been removed from the VA hospital, and the family is seeking the return of their initial payments.
If you feel you were misled about veterans' benefits and pressured into purchasing cemetery goods and services at a high price, give the FAMSA office a call: 800-765-0107.
In Ponca City, Oklahoma, Loewen has made a bid to buy a local IOOF Cemetery, currently being run as a nonprofit operation as required by law. The County Commissioners must determine that a sale would not alter the operations before approving such a sale. At a recent meeting, one Loewen attorney was reported as saying: "Let's just talk in the 4th grade vernacular. We are talking about putting dead people in holes in the ground. That's not going to change whether Loewen is doing it or someone else is."
(A survey of a dozen Oklahoma cemeteries, however, shows that prices are, on average, $1,000 higher at chain-owned cemeteries.)
But there is opposition among the local Ponca City residents—among them, an independent monument dealer, another cemetery operator whose cemetery actually might benefit if Loewen moved in and raised prices, a Hospice social worker, and a woman who reports that Loewen pulled up rose bushes at the Rose Hills Cemetery in California (to reduce maintenance).
One has to wonder how Loewen can promise—as it has in its application—to continue to run the cemetery as a nonprofit operation. Or why anyone would believe such a promise. According to Loewen's Quarterly Report, June 30, 1997: "The Company's cemetery division . . . continued to show strong growth. . . . Profits from cemetery operations rose to $35.9 million, an increase of 70 per cent. Cemetery operating margins [profit] increased to 33.6 percent, compared to 31.2 per cent for the second quarter of 1996." Does Loewen want to own the IOOF cemetery out of the goodness of its heart?
Such goodness apparently does not extend to obeying the law. In the November 17, 1997 issue of Funeral Service Insider: "It's 'pretty much a done deal,' [the Loewen lawyer] predicts, dismissing the opposition. If not, he would advise his client to challenge the law in court or simply pay the $500 — the only fine for violating the law."
If you don't know who owns the cemeteries in your town, you might want to find out.
Many funeral homes are now requiring "personal identification" or ID viewing prior to cremation, hoping that when you see Mom in a cardboard box, someone will ask if there isn't something a little nicer. In fact, this tactic was recommended at a funeral industry symposium—Keys to Cremation Success, "How to Add $1,400 to Your Cremation Calls"—where the speaker admitted that such a maneuver was self-serving. Unless this occurs after a plane crash, for example, where there might be a legitimate doubt regarding the identity of the deceased, this is, indeed, a despicable and manipulative tactic. The funeral home certainly isn't going to show you the wrong body.
Not only is it a basic responsibility of the funeral home to be certain of the identity before ever taking custody of a body, it is also a reasonable expectation that the funeral home will not co-mingle bodies or "lose" the identification. Yes, occasionally there are stories about the wrong body being cremated or the wrong body in the casket for visitation, but these represent sloppy funeral home practices, not a failure to identify.
Some funeral homes have the gall to charge for this "required" viewing or for "preparation for ID viewing." According to the FTC, you may CERTAINLY decline either of these charges unless you specifically asked for private family viewing or unless there is a state law requiring personal ID viewing by next-of-kin. FAMSA knows of no such laws.
A son went to the nursing home to sign the permit for cremation after staff from an SCI-owned funeral home arrived to pick up his mother's body there. Although the nursing home staff had most certainly already done so, he was asked to identify his mother's body. When he said he had no desire to see his mother's body, he was asked to sign the following:
ELECTION NOT TO IDENTIFY BY ACTUAL VIEWING
I, _____________, having declined to make identification through actual viewing of the remains of ___________________________, my ____________________, hereby agree to indemnify and hold [an SCI-owned funeral home] and its officers, directors, shareholders, affiliates, agents, employees, successors, and assigns harmless from any and all claims, liabilities, damages, losses, suits or causes of action (including attorneys' fees and expenses of litigation) brought by any person, firm or corporation or the personal representative thereof, relating to or arising out of such failure to identify.
I understand that [the named SCI-owned funeral home] will wait three (3) additional days after all papers and/or forms required by law have been completed and filed with the appropriate governmental agencies before proceeding with cremation and will charge a storage/ refrigeration fee for the same.
Stressed at his mother's death and all that he needed to do while juggling work commitments, the son signed the form thinking it was a simple release. At no time was he told how much the storage fee would be, he claims. Six days later, he got a bill for $250 dollars more than he expected: storage for five days at $50 per day. Paperwork indicated that the bill had to be paid by the next day, a Friday, but he put off doing so to seek legal help. By the following Tuesday, the funeral home became threatening after a FAMSA inquiry—additional storage would be charged because of the son's delay . . . because he had not signed any "contract." Even though the son had signed a permit to cremate when the funeral home picked up his mother's body at the nursing home, FAMSA was told that the body had not yet been cremated because of the lack of a "contract." At no time—until Tuesday— was the son informed, he says, that a "contract" was the pivotal piece of paperwork necessary before his mother could be cremated. Eleven days had now elapsed with his mother's body stored in a cooler. One other reason the son was unwilling to sign the contract: His signature would indicate that he had been given all price and other disclosures required by the FTC prior to making any arrangements. Such information came after-the-fact—with the bill—and he had no intention of signing a false statement.
In legal terms, the son was a victim of duress and undue influence, not to mention the FTC violations that were committed. There was no legal reason to hold the body for three days AFTER all paperwork was filed, and the funeral home may NOT impose such a charge, let alone without notifying the consumer how much the charge will be. FAMSA is filing complaints with state and federal agencies on the son's behalf, but other consumers should be forewarned about this new manipulation of cremation customers.