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Ellen Bethea at her home in Jacksonville, Fla. After her husband died, she paid $7,000 for her husband's cremation and funeral. She was unaware that the same company offered the same cremation services for much less.

Photo: Laura Heald for NPR

A Funeral May Cost You Thousands Less Just By Crossing The Street

Ellen Bethea at her home in Jacksonville, Fla. After her husband died, she paid $7,000 for her husband’s cremation and funeral. She was unaware that the same company offered the same cremation services for much less.

Photo: Laura Heald for NPR


This story is part one of a two-part investigation. Read part two here.

Story By Riley Beggin of NPR

Ellen Bethea sat alongside her husband’s hospital bed after doctors told her that Archie, the man she had been married to for almost five decades, wouldn’t make it.

“As soon as everybody else was asleep and I was sitting there with him, he passed on,” she remembers. “So I think he kind of waited for me to be with him.”

Bethea says her husband had several health problems and died of liver disease.

Later that day in November 2015, the staff at the hospital near her Jacksonville, Fla., home asked Bethea something she hadn’t prepared for: Which funeral home did she want to use?

Bethea had never planned a funeral before, but knew of only one in town — Hardage-Giddens Funeral Home of Jacksonville. Some of her family and friends had used it and, she said, it had a good reputation. She and her family went there the next day.

After meeting with a staff member, they walked out with a bill of over $7,000.

Bethea provided a copy of the itemized funeral bill to NPR. One thing quickly stood out, but only if you know something about Jacksonville’s funeral market.

The cost of Archie’s cremation — $3,295 — was more than twice the amount charged elsewhere in Jacksonville by the company that owns Hardage-Giddens. The cremations are done in the same place and in the same way.

In a months-long investigation into pricing and marketing in the funeral business, also known as the death care industry, NPR spoke with funeral directors, consumers and regulators. We collected price information from around the country and visited providers. We found a confusing, unhelpful system that seems designed to be impenetrable by average consumers, who must make costly decisions at a time of grief and financial stress.

Funeral homes often aren’t forthcoming about how much things cost, or embed the information in elaborate package deals that can drive up the price of saying goodbye to loved ones.

Ellen Bethea holds a picture of herself and her late husband, Archie. Photo: Laura Heald for NPR

Ellen Bethea holds a picture of herself and her late husband, Archie.
Photo: Laura Heald for NPR

While most funeral businesses have websites, most omit prices from the sites, making it more difficult for families to compare prices or shop around. NPR reporters also found it difficult to get prices from many funeral homes, and federal regulators routinely find the homes violating a law that requires price disclosures.

In Jacksonville, Hardage-Giddens and several other businesses in and around Jacksonville are part of a large, corporate-owned portfolio of about 1,500 funeral homes and several hundred cemeteries.

The owner and operator is Service Corporation International (SCI), a multibillion-dollar company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Houston-based firm claims 16 percent of the $19 billion North American death care market, which includes the U.S. and Canada. Company documents say it has 24,000 employees and is the largest owner of funeral homes and cemeteries in the world.

In Jacksonville, SCI sells cremations under the Hardage-Giddens/Dignity Memorial brand at large, luxurious funeral homes.

The company also sells them for lower prices at strip-mall storefront outlets under other brands such as Neptune Society and National Cremation Society.

In communities around the country, it’s common to find wide swings in prices for funeral services.

“That to me, starts to cross a line into consumer deception,” says Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a death care industry watchdog group based in Burlington, Vt.

Slocum was talking generally about markets such as Jacksonville, where a company’s centralized crematory handles remains from a variety of differently branded outlets — from posh funeral homes to humble storefront cremation societies.

The cremations are all the same, but some will cost much more than others, depending on where the consumer made the arrangements, and which of the company’s brand names appears on the invoice.

“You only get that lower price for the cremation society if you happen to know that it exists and is owned by the same business,” Slocum says. “I’m not saying they’re doing something illegal, but I am questioning whether or not we can really say, ‘Oh, they give a much higher level of service.’ ”

The front of 517 Park St., a crematory that serves multiple funeral homes. The building is located between downtown Jacksonville and the Riverside neighborhood. Laura Heald for NPR

The front of 517 Park St., a crematory that serves multiple funeral homes. The building is located between downtown Jacksonville and the Riverside neighborhood.
Photo: Laura Heald for NPR

The cremations arranged through all those outlets are performed in a large crematory at 517 Park St. in Jacksonville. The crematory’s supervisor, Troy Brown, wrote on his LinkedIn profile that the Park Street facility serves 14 funeral homes.

“Direct cremation is the same no matter where you go,” says Slocum. “When we’re talking about situations where some consumers do not know or can’t find out that that same business offers the same service at a lower price, maybe at a similar location, that is when I would have a problem with it.”

But Scott Gilligan, a lawyer for the National Funeral Directors Association, says comparing the two cremations is “like saying all weddings are the same.”

“Just like if I want a hamburger at a gourmet place, it’s the same hamburger I’m going to get at McDonald’s. But it’s going to cost more because of the atmosphere, because of what is being done. It’s choices,” Gilligan says.

According to Gilligan, when consumers choose a funeral home, they’re generally not making that decision on price. They’re looking at other factors, such as reputation and location.

When it comes to identical services, such as Jacksonville’s cremations, which have different brand names and different prices, Gilligan says: “Well, that is simply someone offering a service, or offering a division, which is going to cater to people who are looking for the price.”

One thing the storefront and the larger funeral homes have in common is an upselling strategy. Both try to sell consumers packages that bundle together multiple goods and services. This makes all of the funerals more expensive.

Bethea says it happened to her.

“Well, actually, I think they only showed us one package that they had,” she says.

Ellen Bethea and her great-grandson, Lucas, look at a painting of her late husband, Archie. Photo: Laura Heald for NPR

Ellen Bethea and her great-grandson, Lucas, look at a painting of her late husband, Archie.
Photo: Laura Heald for NPR

 

That package, known as the Honor Cremation Service, included a number of extra charges, including $495 for stationery and $345 for an Internet memorial.

That price premium is a problem the federal government has tried to fix with “the Funeral Rule,” a regulation in place since 1984.

It requires itemized price lists. But funeral directors are still free to emphasize packages in the sales process, as they did with Bethea.

“You know, Archie didn’t have hardly very much life insurance — maybe 5,000 — and I had, you know, a little bit of money in the bank, and it took everything.”

SCI, whose officials declined to speak with NPR for this story, tells consumers in sales materials that buying a funeral package saves them money.

But company executives tell investors a different story. In a presentation to Wall Street investors last year, the company said consumers spend an extra $1,900, on average when they buy a package, versus an “a la carte” funeral.

For some context, the national median cost of a funeral with a burial, not including cemetery costs, is over $7,000.

SCI CEO Tom Ryan told investors: “Think about society today. We are in a hurry, right? Everybody is on the clock … What we find is when we deliver these packages, people tend to spend more money because they’re buying more products and services.”

He added that consumers, in fact, like the packages.

“And most importantly, we survey our customers, and the highest customer satisfaction scores come from people that select the packages. So we know we’re doing the right thing. The packages allow us to do that for all parties involved,” Ryan said.

Company executives told analysts in July they’re rolling out a new point-of-sale system that also increases per-funeral revenue.

Packaging goods and services under multiple brands and setting different prices for identical services are strategies the company uses in many of its markets, which span 45 states and the District of Columbia.

In Raleigh, N.C., for example, the company’s full service funeral home and storefront cremation office are across the street from each other. Crossing that street can save you — or cost you — $1,895.

By Riley Beggin of NPR, Brian Latimer and Emily Siner of Nashville Public Radio, Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma and Ed Williams of KUNM contributed to this story.

View the original story along with its extras at NPR.

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‘Today We Are His Family’: Teen Volunteers Mourn Those Who Died Alone

On the drive to Fairview Cemetery in the Boston neighborhood of Hyde Park, six seniors from Roxbury Latin boys’ school sit in silent reflection. Mike Pojman, the school’s assistant headmaster and senior adviser, says the trip is a massive contrast to the rest of their school day, and to their lives as a whole right now.

Today the teens have volunteered to be pallbearers for a man who died alone in September, and for whom no next of kin was found. He’s being buried in a grave with no tombstone, in a city cemetery.

“To reflect on the fact that there are people, like this gentleman, who probably knew hundreds or thousands of people through his life, and at the end of it there’s nobody there — I think that gets to all of them,” Pojman says. “Some have said, ‘I just gotta make sure that never happens to me.’ “

The students, dressed in jackets and ties, carry the plain wooden coffin, and take part in a short memorial. They read together, as a group:

“Dear Lord, thank you for opening our hearts and minds to this corporal work of mercy. We are here to bear witness to the life and passing of Nicholas Miller.

“He died alone with no family to comfort him.

“But today we are his family, we are here as his sons

“We are honored to stand together before him now, to commemorate his life, and to remember him in death, as we commend his soul to his eternal rest.”

Each of the young men in turn read a poem, verse of scripture, or passage about death. Emmett Dalton, 18, reads “A Reflection On An Autumn Day,” which ends “death can take away what we have, but it cannot rob us of who we are.”

From left to right, funeral director Rob Lawler; Roxbury Latin students Emmett Dalton, Noah Piou and Chris Rota; Roxbury Latin assistant headmaster Mike Pojman, and Roxbury Latin students Brendan McInerney, Liam McDonough and Esteban Enrique conduct a graveside prayer service for Nicholas Miller on Friday at the Fairview Cemetery. |Kayana Szymczak for NPR|

After the ceremony, the seniors share their thoughts about an experience— in the middle of a school day — that has hit them hard.

“I know I’m going back, and I’m going to go to school and take another quiz,” says 18-year-old Brendan McInerney, “but all that work, you can get caught up in it. … When you kind of get out of that bubble that you can kind of stuck in, you get perspective on what’s really important in life.”

Mike Pojman was inspired to start bringing students to these funerals by a similar program at his alma mater, St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland. He turned to local funeral home Lawler and Crosby — which, by coincidence, is one of the very few funeral homes in the state that steps in to help with these kind of burials.

“It’s the right thing to do,” says funeral director Robert Lawler. “You know, you can’t leave these poor people lying there forever.”

Funeral director Bob Lawler sits alone in a visitation room with the casket of Nicholas Miller as he waits for students from Roxbury Latin school to arrive and act as pallbearers for the burial. |Kayana Szymczak for NPR|

When there are no family members or volunteers available, it’s just Lawler by himself, saying a prayer at graveside. After doing this for 42 years, he appreciates the effect it has on people like 17-year-old Roxbury Latin senior Noah Piou. Today’s ceremony for Nicholas Miller was the first funeral he’s attended.

“That’s my first real moment presented with some form of death before me, and I was kind of at a loss for words at the time,” he says. “I’ve never met Mr. Miller before, but even within that I kind of had a connection with him, and I could feel that.”

After the brief ceremony the students laid flowers. Then they piled back into the van, driving back to school in time for their next lesson.

Heard on Morning Edition, Jan. 25, 2016 courtesy of Arun Rath and NPR.

Fear, Death, and Pumpkins

NPR logoLast week, I’m Sorry to Hear was featured as the go-to source for at-need funeral planning on NPR’s “The Pulse.” In the hour-long segment, reporters touched on the growing appeal of Death Salons, Death Cafes, and featured “death-tech” companies in the Innovation segment.

The whole broadcast is fascinating. Our interview can be found 19 minutes and 50 seconds in where reporter Todd Bookman toutes I’m Sorry to Hear as the one-stop-shop for families in need of funeral planning tools, advice, and to find funeral vendors across the country.

The whole broadcast can be listened to using the link below:

In October, I’m Sorry to Hear founder, Rachel Zeldin, was also featured as a subject matter expert in the Chicago Tribune article, “Funeral For One” and WHYY’s article, “Funeral Costs Vary in Philly, but Prices Difficult to Compare.” For more media coverage on I’m Sorry to Hear, see our In The News section.