29 Mar 2009

The shame! Even DEAD people get ripped off

6 Comments outdoor activities, Stand Up for the Little Guy

cremation-urn If you’re squeamish, don’t read this– I warned you! BlitzLocal has two clients that deal with dying– one that sells discounted caskets, one that provides free funeral advice (a servicemagic for funerals).  Now to be an effective marketer, you have to really understand what your client does and get into the minds of their customers.  So in the last few months, I’ve read 3 full books on funerals and countless magazines and articles.  I now understand the minute details of how bodies are cremated (they have to remove metal and other objects beforehand, else it can explode at 2,000 degrees) how embalming occurs for organ donors (embalmers can magically rework a bag of flesh into what looks like a human, using wood and metal inserts), the decomposition of corpses even in “sealed” caskets (nothing will stop the elements), marketing tactics by funeral directors to extract your last dollar (every detail of their office is arranged “just so”), how you can conduct the funeral and burial of a loved one yourself (it can involve lots of dry ice and heavily scented perfumes), options for holding a “green” funeral (don’t be part of the several million gallons of formaldehyde that get into our ground each year– 3 pounds of formalin per body), and so forth.  Funny the places that internet marketing can take you.

Do you know the funeral rule?

A few years ago, Congress enacted a law to protect consumers from getting ripped off.  Some of the many provision include:

  • a clause that prevents more than a 7 times markup on casket prices. So then you have to ask– if 7 times is illegal, then I suppose jacking up the price 6 times your cost is okay?  If the law is that you can’t charge more than 7 times your cost, then how badly were most funeral directors ripping folks off before?  Can you imagine Congress enacting such a rule in supermarkets, saying that Safeway is not allowed to charge more than 7 times what it costs for a gallon of milk or box of cereal?  You’d probably be incensed to pay $20 for a box of cereal (even my favorite, which is Blueberry Morning), but you might not have any idea what a $5,000 casket actually costs wholesale, would you?  And what are you going to do about it?  Shop around, come back on double coupon Thursdays, ask for the “scratch and dent” or coffins that are on sale?  No, this is the worst day of your life– your loved one has just died. Not all funeral directors are scam artists, but this is capitalism, folks. And there aren’t many mom and pop funeral homes– most are owned by large corporations that don’t change the family name or feel.  These corporations have executives interested in increasing the stock price and their bonuses.
  • you can buy your own casket. Kind of like bring your own beer, but not quite.  The funeral director MUST allow you, if you so choose, to purchase your casket elsewhere and bring it in without an additional handling fee.  Of course, they will dissuade you that the caskets bought on-line (yes, even Costco offers caskets now), are somehow cheaper, more likely to break, might be damaged in transit, or might not get there in time (can you imagine the horror?).  What they won’t tell you is that they buy from the same place or that it’s as easy as going on-line and buying something from Amazon.com, minus the one-click option.  Look.  They are going to make a good chunk on you for embalming, the service filing papers, storing the body, and so forth– so it’s not like they’re not making money.  Have you ever seen a funeral home go out of business?  They’re doing okay, shall we say?
  • they have to show you a price list. True, they have to break out the prices of each item, but they still will use every trick in the book to open your wallet.  For example, embalming is optional.  If you have the funeral within 48 hours of death, you don’t need to embalm. And if you do embalm– a horrible process that I’ll spare readers the details of what exactly happens– you don’t have to have the funeral right away.  You can even have the funeral a year later and the body will be just the same– just increase the concentration of embalming fluid.  Famous figures have laid in state for months at a time– it’s basically mumification.  Some funeral directors will charge for embalming even when the remains are going straight from the hospital to the crematorium– the family is none the wiser.  But as to what you “have” to buy– the list is endless. You can bring your own pallbearers, get your own flowers– you don’t have to ride in a limo from the service, nor do you have to hold the service at the funeral home.  It can be at a church or even your own home– but wakes are not as popular these days.  More people are living in apartments, but that’s not stopping them from putting the casket in the back of their pickup truck and carrying it upstairs to the second story unit.
  • you can rent a casket. Yes, but the funeral director doesn’t want you to know.  And he will probably be “out of stock” of all but the cheapest steel caskets– and they’re all cheap, by the way. What used to be called a coffin is now called a casket.  What’s the difference?  None, except price.  There is a growing movement among other furniture makers who see the impressive margins that the coffin manufacturers are getting, to enter the business.  There are guys who used to just make tables and chairs– now they are making simple pine boxes for $250– a tenth or a 20th the price of what funeral homes charge.  Plus, you can even decorate the box as you choose with hand-painted images. And these wood caskets can be much nicer than what’s mass produced.  We have a lot of office furniture from Walmart and American Furniture Warehouse– it works just fine, but we’re not paying $2,000 for a table and a chair.

Want to find out more?  Have a morbid curiosity or perhaps you want to be armed with knowledge for when that inevitable time comes?  There was a funeral home that I often passed by to and from school.  They had a banner that changed every few weeks with a new witty saying.  One time, it said “Drop in now for a coffee, since you’ll be dropping by at some point anyway.”  You think my post in undignified?  Try paying 7 times the true cost to bury a loved one.

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written by
Dennis Yu is the Chief Technology Officer of Portage. He is an internationally recognized lecturer in Facebook marketing, having been featured in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, LA Times, National Public Radio, TechCrunch, Fox News, and CBS Evening News. He is also an author at InsideFacebook and AllFacebook. Dennis has held leadership positions at Yahoo! and American Airlines. He studied Finance and Economics from Southern Methodist University and London School of Economics. Besides being a Facebook data and ad geek, you can find him eating chicken wings or playing Ultimate Frisbee in a city near you. You can contact him at dennis@portage.co, his blog, or on Facebook.
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6 Responses to “The shame! Even DEAD people get ripped off”

  1. Reply Adam says:

    Great advice Dennis, I have a client who represents these very services.

  2. Reply Daehee says:

    Cool insight into the funeral industry. I had no idea.

  3. Reply R.Brian Burkhardt says:

    Just curious, what three full books did you read? You have presented a superb posting on the funeral industry,from an insider and a reformers point of view.

    Your Funeral Guy.

    • Reply admin says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for the note! A compliment coming from a real funeral director– my hats off to you. The books I read are Grave Matters, Estate Planning for Dummies, The Undertaker, and Stiff. I didn’t know you had a book– seems like one worth checking out! In fact, it’s just $11 on Amazon, so I one-clicked it now. Will be a quick airplane read at just 122 pages.

  4. Reply james Showers says:

    I am very surprised that you feel well informed – as it struck me that a lot of what you say is simply not true – and that exaggeration runs throughout. Now, it is certainly possible that the industry here in the uk is radically different – but to claim that a funeral director marks up a simple pine coffin “10 – 20 times” from the $250 that it costs would be laughable in this country – and, I suspect, in yours.
    I absolutely welcome taking the lid off the rather closed business of funerals, and in being professionally transparent in all areas – but I wince at the demonisation that seems to be implied by these claims that would be very rash in this country.
    Have you spoken to good funeral directors about what the books have claimed? You might be advised that things are not what they are claimed. Yours. James Showers

  5. Reply david wolf says:

    Great article,

    I was actually looking for some industry best practices as to utilizing the internet for marketing. A new client of mine is having trouble monetizing the obituary traffic that they get on their website. We solved that one, but it got me thinking about how else we could help them turn visitors into customers. Often times people hate the fact that people can up charge so much on something of this nature. Business is business. I just think funeral home owners get the bad rap because they deal in an industry where their customers are so emotionally attached. Similar to doctors, someone does not understand why a doctor can go play golf on his day off while someone is waiting for transplant that could save their life. The doctor deals with it everyday, to him it is simply a part of his daily routine, just like coffee in the morning. To the patient, it is a once in a lifetime traumatic experience. You cant blame the doctor, we are all like that, it is human nature. Just my two sense. Anyone looking for website conversion advice for the memorial service let me know, also if you have come across some good info on how to convert visitors into presale clients, I would be greatly appreciative.

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