The High Cost of Dying: How the funeral industry takes advantage of grieving families.

AuthorKuhlenbeck, Mike

The grim business of laying the dead to rest, known by the gentle-sounding euphemism as the "Death Care Industry," has established a unique place in American society, invoking a sort of reverence in the public mind. But while they provide necessary services, they are in business to make money, and consumers need to be aware.

"Unfortunately, every profession has a few rotten apples," says National Funeral Directors Association Treasurer Jack Mitchell. "There are some people in our profession that would take advantage of families in their grieving, who are going through a difficult situation and upsell them. The vast majority of us despise that, because it makes the rest of us look bad."

Complicating matters is that death, including funerals, is seldom seriously discussed. As people confront the economic challenges of their daily lives, the need to plan for death, even their own, is far from their minds.

"With the last generation or two, there's been less discussion ahead of time about death," Mitchell says. "We sit down with families who don't have a clue what they want to do, and I think they end up making decisions that further down the road they look back and say, 'We should have done this instead.' "

People struggling to afford basic needs are more likely to "have shorter lives than those with higher incomes," according to a 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office.

Families with loved ones who die unexpectedly, especially from illness and injury face even greater monetary challenges when arranging for final resting places and accompanying services. Sadly, this discussion has become more urgent with the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, as the risk of death is much higher for those who are elderly and impoverished or who have pre-existing conditions.

The potential costs even for modest funeral services can be overwhelming, given that four in ten Americans say they would be unable to afford a $400 emergency. The financial burden compounded with the grief of losing a loved one can cause traumatic distress.

Those tasked with the somber responsibility of making funeral arrangements must make tough decisions in a limited amount of time, attempting to honor the wishes of the departed as well as recognize financial limitations. Emotions are heightened, leaving consumers vulnerable.

The National Directory of Morticians Redbook lists more than 19,000 funeral homes in the United States. Funeral homes generated revenues of...

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