Monday, December 28, 2009

Size and Service

fat death
It's no surprise that many of us are getting bigger than our forebears. Even if we don't notice it on the street or in the mirror, we've all seen the news segments where the camera shows footage of overweight people from the neck down, citing a new study on obesity.

Some airlines have been under fire lately for charging people more if they are over a certain weight, and while this may be horrible customer service, we all know that the larger we are, the more jet fuel is required to lift us off the runway.

Expanding waistlines have an effect on funeral service options as well.

The labor and equipment required to care for the dead is pretty much the same whether a person is 25 lbs or 300. Removal from a hospital requires only one director and a standard cot, removal from a home setting requires two directors, and while the amount of embalming chemicals, or time in a crematory will vary a bit, the amount of labor and the type of equipment required does not vary depending upon the size of the deceased. At a certain point, say 350 lbs, the amount of labor, the capacity of equipment, and the range of merchandise changes dramatically. Removal from the place of death can require six directors. If cremation is chosen, freezing may be necessary. The deceased may not fit on a standard embalming table or inside a standard crematory retort. Traditionally, however, costs to consumers have stayed the same no matter their size.

fat death

Exceptions to this rule have been children, and merchandise. Traditionally, full service funeral homes have provided their services to children for nothing, or for almost nothing. Merchandise such as caskets, vaults and urns are things that the funeral homes must pay for themselves, and thus those costs are passed on to consumers, but removal, planning, paperwork, embalming, services, vehicles, staff and cremation are traditionally provided to the families of infants and children for free. The merchandise selected for people who do not fit in a standard casket or vault, and the cost of an additional grave space, if necessary, can be more expensive because of the size and strength required.

Is this fair? Well, I don't think anyone would argue that two graves should cost the same as one, or that a casket should cost the same no matter how big it is. As far as infants and children go, this is a donation of service in a very tragic situation, and few would argue that the waiving of a fees for babies and children is unfair to the rest of us.
fat death
The hard economic reality though, is that funeral homes have expenses that must be met. Mortgages must be paid, staff retained, benefits provided, equipment must be purchased and maintained. All the income from the services a funeral home provides must contribute to paying these costs, so if the services for babies are provided for free, the rest of the families each pay a little more than they otherwise would have to, to make this possible.

Similarly, when the cost of the labor and equipment required to care for the over 350 crowd is higher, but their cost stays the same, then ultimately, everyone else is paying more so that they can pay the same.

This is the way funeral homes have operated for years, and there is nothing unusual or deceptive about it. At some point every business averages their costs out over a range of consumers. Some do not pay their bills, and the rest of us must make up the difference. Some customers need more care, and take up more service and labor from staff. Some menu items cost the restaurant less, but are marked up more to cover the cost of labor and facilities across all patrons.

And so, we might assume that as people get bigger, the average casket gets bigger, the average embalming table gets bigger, the average crematory is built with greater capacity, and it all evens out again. We all pay just a little more so that babies are buried for free and big people aren't singled out for higher prices. This is part of the traditional full service funeral home model. Another part of the model is that, despite a dramatic increase in labor costs for large services, for making removals at night or on holidays, and for preparing the deceased following tissue donations or autopsies, the price for services remains the same.

However, the model is changing, and more and more families are choosing discount funeral homes that offer limited services and lower prices. Does this sound familiar? Let's go back to the airlines. Many people choose their airline based on price alone. They shop around for the lowest fare, and in turn, airlines offer less and less. If you want a meal on the plane now, you have to pay for it outright. If you want to take another piece of luggage, there is a fee.

Full service funeral homes are not at this point yet. However, market forces are driving them in this direction.

Our funeral home recently served a family who had originally engaged the services of a discount funeral home to care for their very overweight loved one. The discount funeral home lacked the proper equipment to transport the deceased from the place of death, even from a hospital type bed in a medical facility. Because we had equipment that could handle the weight in a dignified and safe manner, our services were engaged for the removal. Still, the family continued to work with the discounter until they were told that there would be a surcharge amounting to 100 percent for transport and cremation services because of the extra work and equipment involved. At our full service funeral home, cremation for adults costs the same, no matter what their size is.

So should people to pay more for services if they happened to die on Christmas, or have a large extended family, require an autopsy, or weigh 400 lbs.? I don't think so, but ultimately, the market will decide. I do know, though, that the day we determine the cost of services by the weight of the deceased, the world will be a colder place; a place where the dead are disposed of, not laid to rest.

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.