Funerals are a billion
dollar a year industry in Canada, and business just keeps getting better.
Baby boomers are aging — within ten years, we're going to have the
highest death rate ever.
An American-owned funeral
chain is claiming an ever-growing share of that market. A Marketplace investigation
has found that its methods may be costing you thousands of dollars more
Funerals are often the third
largest purchase most Canadians will make. They are notoriously expensive.
Ask Darryl Roberts. He spent
his career running funeral homes and cemeteries in the United States —
then wrote a whistle-blowing book, The Profits of Death, documenting how
funeral homes take your money."Guilt is a very, very, very large part of
the industry and how they make you buy things."
To fight exorbitant prices,
memorial societies have sprung up in every province across the country.
People who join want simple, affordable services. For $10, you can fill
out a form indicating what you want in the way of a service when you die.
Isobel Morrison filled out
one of those forms and joined a memorial society. When she died at the
age of 93, her daughter Gail Fraser headed to a funeral home to arrange
a simple cremation. "I was feeling that I was doing the right thing, and
I was following her wishes."
But Fraser found the meeting
with staff at the home confusing. Instead of following her mother's wishes,
a staff member suggested that Fraser make extra purchases from a long list
of goods and services. Fraser refused it all. "I knew what she wanted.
She told me a hundred times before. I had her wishes in writing. But I
still felt…it made me feel badly."
Finally, the employee led
Fraser down a hall and pointed out the cremation container she'd ordered
for her mother. He pointed to a cardboard box.
"I said, 'Is this for her
ashes?'And he said, 'No. That's for the body.' I don't think I've ever
felt worse in my life. Just stunned," Fraser told Marketplace. "I think
it was the last attempt to shame me into providing something more fitting
for my mother."
What Gail Fraser did not
know was the memorial her mother signed with had contracted with a funeral
home owned by Service Corporation International. It's not the only funeral
chain in the business, but it's the biggest — by far. And while neighbourhood
funeral homes like to make a profit, SCI has shareholders to answer to.
Jon Beneken is vice-president
of SCI Canada. He says the employee who dealth with Gail Fraser had her
best interests in mind.
"I would not suggest that
he was trying to get Mrs. Fraser to spend more money. He was trying to
make sure she understood what she was purchasing."
Beneken says SCI uses modern
marketing techniques to learn what people need to buy.
But an SCI training manual
obtained by Marketplace says:
"...although our Company
is involved in an industry which is service oriented, we are…a sales company…Our
growth and our future will only be strengthened through sales."
Norm and Rene Cook know that
sales manual well. They used to work in SCI funeral homes. They say they
were taught to jack up the bottom line.
"You would go directly to
the most expensive casket…you'd point out all of the features…and then
you would simply look at them and say, 'Don't you think this is the casket
that your father deserves?' And then you don't say anything. And then you
keep taking them down step by step…until finally they get to the point
when finally they're embarrassed to go any lower," Norm Cook said.
Rene Cooke says the same
techniques are used for selling floral arrangements.
"You start at your highest
with a casket spray of roses, and of course you have to have your end pieces.
And if there are grandchildren, of course, you have to have something from
the grandchildren and there should be something from the son and something
from the daughter and it can go on and on and on."
The Cookes now run an discount
casket store. Their normal markup is double the wholesale price. Marketplace
has found that markups for similar caskets at SCI can be up to 800 per
cent higher than wholesale. SCI employees — unlike most independent funeral
homes — are often on commission.
Beneken defends that practice
saying commission is a pretty standard method of compensation in any sales
SCI runs 120 funeral homes
and cemeteries in Canada — but doesn't like to reveal when it has come
to town. Their outlets rarely carry the SCI brand.
"They want you to believe
that you're still dealing with the same person you go to church with, or
to your social club," Darryl Roberts said. He adds when SCI buys a local
outlet, the company increases prices in the first six to nine months.
When you walk past an SCI
funeral home, you might think it's independent. SCI uses the registered
trademark Family Funeral Care®.
Beneken insists that the
phrase means the company provides care for families. "We have no desire,
intention or motivation to mislead anyone."
Martin Toren feels some responsibility
for what happened to Gail Fraser's mother. He's the president of the Memorial
Society of B.C. Toren says the society had to partner with a funeral company
big enough to handle more than 3,000 deaths a year. Toren says he's had
words with SCI.
"The people I speak to at
SCI just say, 'This is not supposed to happen.' They say they have zero
tolerance for this kind of thing, and it won't happen again."
But it does.
Marketplace wanted to see
if Gail Fraser's experience at a funeral home owned by SCI was unique.
We brought a hidden camera to that same funeral home.
Our camera operator explained
that her mother wanted a simple, inexpensive cremation. She was shown a
number of things to buy to hold cremated remains. She was also told — six
times — by someone on commission that her mother's wishes for simplicity
did not have to be heeded.
At the SCI home, our camera
operator asked for a simple package. The first price quoted was $11,000.
We put that information to
SCI Canada's John Beneken.
"I'd like to have a look
at that. I really would," he said. We asked him whether he thought the
package was a good suggestion.
"No I don't. So I'd like
to have a look at it."
Marketplace wanted to find
out whether our camera operator would face the same kind of situation at
an independent funeral home.
Again, our operator asked
for a simple package — and was led through a display room to a casket made
of particle board, the cheapest casket available.
Marketplace survyed ten funeral
homes in the Vancouver area: five independents and five SCI operations.
Charges for the same traditional funeral packages — not including a casket
or other goods like flowers — ranged from $1,935 at an independent home
to almost $3,400 at an SCI home. That's 75 per cent higher.
In the end, Gail Fraser paid
$800 for her mother's cremation, the designated price for memorial society
members. She says she got that price only because she didn't let guilt
or pressure influence her. She says others who have lost loved ones should
do the same.
"Keep reminding yourself
that it's their wishes that you're honouring."
As for the memorial society,
it has changed the way it operates. Now when a member dies, the society
will go with family members when they finalize funeral arrangements. It's
also re-examining its relationship with SCI.
"We'll have to either see
some improvement with what's happening with the present provider, or we'll
have to get somebody else," the society's Martin Toren told Marketplace.
Ultimately, we have to treat
the deathcare industry like any other business — ask questions and shop
Homes | Funeral Contacts - A
Celebration of Life - Choosing
a funeral home - Contacting
the Funeral Home
a Funeral | Flowers and Funerals
| Consumer Information on Funerals in Canada
| Funeral Cremations