Consumer Information about Funerals in Canada

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 than necessary.

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 organization.

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 around.

Funeral Homes | Funeral Contacts - A Celebration of Life - Choosing a funeral home - Contacting the Funeral Home
Pre-planning a Funeral | Flowers and Funerals | Consumer Information on Funerals in Canada | Funeral Cremations