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Big Companies, Simpler Services Typify Funeral Industry's Reincarnation : Americans Seek Lower Costs and Greater Personal Influence

October 19, 1995|MAGGIE JACKSON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

After Bette and Nick Zakula's grown son died in a car accident, the Wisconsin couple drove his body from the hospital to a crematorium, then held a simple church service.

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In doing so, the Zakulas gave their son what more and more Americans would like but few will ever have: a plain and simple departure from life. They spent only $200 and, more importantly, gained an unexpected peace of mind.

"Being involved helped to make it a reality. . . . It was more personal," said Bette Zakula, who decided to arrange her son's funeral after failing to find a funeral home that would provide just a cremation.

For many, the American death ritual remains a different story. Hobbled by grief, mourners are coaxed by saccharine sales pitches into buying costly goods and services. From casket to cosmetics, the average funeral bill totals nearly $4,500. Burials typically cost $3,500 more, while cremations add another few hundred dollars.

There are signs of change. Although few people will ever care for their own dead as the Zakulas did, little by little, more people are shying away from at least some of the pomp of traditional funerals, and choosing cremation or simpler services.

Alarmed, funeral directors are searching for new ways to profit, from cremation-related products to advance payment plans.

"I think people never did want fancy services--they were foisted on them by the trade," said Jessica Mitford, author of the 1963 bestseller "The American Way of Death," which she's currently updating.

Simpler services are gaining popularity as a "rebellion against all that nonsense . . . and [because] people are becoming aware of the danger of being fleeced," Mitford said.

Funeral directors argue that while some of the nation's 22,500 funeral homes have been slow to answer consumers' needs, most are trying to be more responsive.

"This is not a cookie-cutter society. Funeral services have rallied to that, and have tried to give people choices," said John Carmon, a Connecticut funeral director and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Assn.

The mortuary men at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home on New York City's well-heeled Upper East Side are proud of the choices their hushed quarters offer.

Families may view the deceased in any of 12 "staterooms," including a wood-paneled "library," complete with fireplace, funeral director Paul Horvath tells a visitor.

In another room is the queen of Campbell coffins, an $85,000 one-of-a-kind cast bronze with glass liner. On a simpler scale, a walnut casket sells for $10,700 (wholesale $1,800) and a plain corrugated box for cremations sells for $695 ($100 to $150 wholesale).

"The upkeep is tremendous on Madison Avenue," said Horvath, explaining the high prices at the establishment that handled the bodies of Judy Garland and John Lennon. In return, Campbell tries to "go the extra mile" in serving families.

A century ago, mourners sought little more than a plain box from the local furniture maker and a clergyman to say the right words. The rest was done at home by relatives.

In recent decades, new customs evolved, including embalming the body before viewing and fancy "protective" sealed caskets to keep out the elements. Gradually, the undertaker grew to become the unquestioned director of the funeral show.

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Today, while funeral directors still portray themselves as sage professionals, most are trying to be more open and approachable, stressing their self-proclaimed roles as "death experts" and counselors.

"Before I graduated in 1974 [from mortuary school], we had psychology one hot summer afternoon, and a little bereavement study," recalls Jacquie Taylor, president of the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. "Now our students take three semesters of psychology, a semester of sociology and other courses such as communications."

As part of this trend, funeral homes increasingly offer "after-care" services such as seminars on cooking for one, camps for grieving children and support groups.

Of course, meeting clients' needs also generates good public relations--perhaps more of a must in the funeral business than in any other. This point is especially revealed in the industry's trade press, one of the few arenas where profits and PR are openly discussed.

The NFDA's "P.R. Pointers" column recently cited the Hanes-Lineberry Funeral Service in Greensboro, N.C., for a pet-loss workshop, and the Shelley Funeral Chapel in Little Falls, Minn., for sending pink or blue carnations to newborns.

Whatever their efforts, when death strikes, the funeral director usually meets an undoubtedly weak consumer.

Upon entering a funeral home, most people are dazed, confused, ignorant of the process of arranging a funeral and unaware of laws that protect them. Furthermore, they must make a purchase; there's no coming back next year after saving up or looking around.

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