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.