Corporate Chains or Family Operated Funeral Homes? Which is better for the bereaved family?

September 30, 2014

When a loved one dies, everything shifts out of perspective. There are some huge decisions to make, in a very confusing and stressful time, including which funeral home to call in your time of need. Whether you choose a corporate or a family operated funeral home, you may have a very different experience, as they are generally operated quite differently. Over the years, I have been employed by a small number of privately owned funeral homes as well as two of the world’s largest corporate funeral home operators. I have worked in management, sales, operations and have done my share of car-washing for both types of companies. So, you might ask; which is better for you and your family, the consumer, at your time of need? I can only speak from my own experiences as a funeral director over the past 23 years; so, if my opinion is of interest to you, please read on.

 

My experience working in the corporate side has proven to me that they were generally more expensive and highly focused on sales averages and budget controls.  These companies appeared to be managed as much by accountants as they were by people with actual funeral service experience.  I recall having to explain why it was impossible to operate three funeral vehicles with only two staff members to an accountant in Toronto; and I had to do that on more than one occasion.  These companies tend to employ commission based salespeople. They are usually called “Family Service Counselors” or something along those lines.  These people are put in contact with families for both prearrangements and time-of-need arrangements (a death has occurred) and it is commonly understood, throughout the industry, that many of these people have little or no experience relative to the job.  Due to being commission based, they are highly motivated to sell, sell and then sell some more. Many of them don’t like taking no for an answer and that can be problematic for the family. Although not all of these individuals are without morals, it’s true that if they don’t sell, they don’t make much money, and if they don’t make much money, they generally aren’t employed for long. The turnover rate is generally very high, so there are always a lot of new employees in the field. While this model may work well in other industries, I don’t think it has a useful place in funeral service. I am not suggesting that all of them are unscrupulous, but I believe that a bereaved family is uniquely vulnerable and I think that in most cases they are probably better served by salaried employees who have had adequate training.

 

On the flip-side, there was a policy manual and nobody was above the policy manual; not even the manager or the manager’s manager.  So, if something unethical transpired, there was always a person higher up the ladder to report to when necessary.  There was also a Human Resources Department so employees always had someone to advocate for them.  The corporate operators have thousands of employees and multi-million dollar revenue streams. They also have much to lose if there is a perception that somebody has acted inappropriately.  Because of this, personally, I was never asked to do anything unethical while working for a corporately operated funeral home.  There were rare occurrences of employees acting unethically but never at the request of a supervisor.  Sure, they pushed us (often unreasonably) to cut costs and sell more expensive caskets, urns and burial vaults, but nobody ever asked me to misrepresent myself or act in any way unbefitting of a funeral director.  So, despite the focus on high dollar sales, things were generally done by the book and a higher level of service was achieved. There is anything inherently wrong with that. There are many good people working for corporate funeral home operators, and most of them have your best interests at heart.

 

Privately owned funeral homes tend to be less expensive because they don’t have the layers of infrastructure and overhead costs that the large corporate companies do.  Privately owned funeral homes don’t have head-offices full of lawyers, accountants, executives, human resources experts and administrative staff to pay for so they able to charge a little less (although not all of them do).  

 

Unfortunately, I’ve experienced some very unethical situations while working for privately operated funeral homes.  During my employment I have been asked to lie under oath in a court of law, discard cremated human remains into the trash and charge more for services and merchandise than we normally would because the family was perceived to be wealthy.  I was even fired once for dating a person who worked at a competing funeral home; go figure.  This is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Suffice to say that just because a funeral home advertises themselves as “family owned”, one should not automatically assume they are more trustworthy.  The two things are simply not related, in my opinion.  At a privately owned establishment, the buck stops with the owner because there is nobody higher up the ladder.  Having said that, I think that the majority of privately operated funeral homes operate with high levels of integrity but the rotten apples are definitely out there and they tend to acquire their clients by advertising rock-bottom prices.

 

So, which is better?  I can tell you with absolutely certainty, that there is no clear answer to that question.  The answer depends, one hundred percent, on the needs of the client-family.  Obviously it would be ideal to have a blend of the two choices.  The integrity of the corporately operated locations with the pricing structure of the average privately owned. This is what Integrity Death Care endeavors to provide the bereaved family. We want to ensure that families who experience a loss can expect the best possible blend of price, facilities and quality of service.  IDC finalizes the majority of the funeral arrangements and determines the costs before the funeral home is ever notified that a death has occurred.  We generate an “apples to apples” price comparison and offer a level of transparency the industry has never seen in Manitoba.  No funeral home operator is going to survey their competitor’s pricing and present their findings to a client for comparison if the competitors are charging less.  No funeral director is going to suggest that the funeral home down the street has a chapel or reception facility that is more appropriately sized or decorated for your family’s needs.  It would be unreasonable to expect any business to operate that way.  Yet, that is exactly what IDC does and the results save money and provide peace of mind to the family. We discuss why it may or may not make sense to select the funeral home operator with the lowest price offering and we help our clients make sound decisions based on concise, unbiased and easy to understand information. 

 

So, whether a family is interested in a basic cremation with no memorial service or an elaborate funeral service tailored to the most eclectic of tastes, we help them choose a funeral home that makes sense for their needs regardless of whose name is on the door.

 

written by Shane Neufeld

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