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The Not-so-high Cost of Dying

I am usually amused when I pick up a magazine or newspaper or turn on the television and see “news” reports on the high cost of dying. Almost every year a few fledgling reporters make their personal mission to reveal the fact that funerals are expensive or go as far as saying they are unjustifiably expensive. It seems that no matter where I travel these kinds of articles and stories seem to fill the vacuum during an otherwise dull day of news.

Not so long ago I returned to my old stomping grounds for a reunion. It was nice to see familiar faces and listen to stories of back in the day. After the usual comparing loss of hair and gains in weight the topic usually turned to one another’s work. I was often asked if I was “still in the undertaking business.” When I answered in the affirmative most people shared their recent death experiences with me. A few made comments about how I must be rich now due to the high cost of dying. Having little desire to discuss funeral costs or my personal finances I usually changed the subject to their businesses or careers.

One fellow was particularly vocal about his perception of funeral costs saying, “You guys sure know how to charge!” When I asked what he was doing he replied: “I am the donut man in town.” You see he had purchased a franchise for a donut store. He openly bragged about the line-up of people at his drive-through window and at the counter every morning, lunch and evening. He spoke about his high employee turnover and how he believed the minimum wage law was unfair to his business because young people show no commitment these days. When I asked him if there was good money in selling obesity, heart disease and diabetes he laughed and told me he had recovered his seven-figure investment in 36 months!

I began to ponder the thinking style of any businessperson who thinks funerals are expensive and embarked upon a project involving local small businesspeople, the backbone of the North American economy. I decided to shop and compare the fees of non-funeral businesses in our community that offer similar services.

Facilities to serve:

A chapel is little more than a multi-purpose room like those found in a local hotel or conference centre. So I inquired at hotels. I asked for some very simple things. A room set up with chairs, parking spaces, display stands and equipment to play music, an LCD projector and screen and a public address system. I also asked for staff members to direct attendees and ensure our reserved parking spots stayed reserved.

Could anybody answer my questions? Nope, it was usually telephone tag with a few people who had to check with others. Time investment to get three quotes for the above: more than a dozen telephone calls over two days.

“Sorry sir, we don’t have a projector.” Or, “We do not offer staff to help you usher people.” And, “We can’t guarantee the parking spaces,” were the usual replies. No one was able to facilitate my requests with less than 72-hours notice.

When I asked about the cost of meeting rooms it ranged between $400 and $800 per half-day.

The rental price for an LCD projector, screen, stereo and cordless microphone system ranged between $350 and $600 per day.

For simplicity, let’s use an average chapel cost figure of $1,000 for a half-day.

Ambulatory services:

I wondered what would be closest to facilitating a transfer of the deceased into our care so I tried two strategies:

• A biohazard waste company to pick up 250 pounds of medical waste in a hotshot service.
• A patient transport service to pick up a 250-lb. paralyzed person and transport them 20 miles in a hotshot service.

Not one company would quote me unless I gave them an exact pick up and delivery address and then they told me which day and what time they would come. Both types of companies were not interested in dealing with me “right now, immediately, today” and all firms told me they would no doubt charge me for waiting time if we are not ready at the moment they arrived.

Time investment: more than six telephone calls over two days.

The average price was $275 with an advanced booking. When I asked for an after-business hours pick-up or for an immediate response, the price more than doubled.

Embalming and decedent care:

Embalming is difficult to compare so I decided to compare the services of two very different companies.

• A beauty shop asking for an outcall service in my house.
• A full-service spa for a half-day treatment.

For the beauty shop I requested to get a shampoo, colour treatment, haircut, manicure and facial. No one would drop what they were doing to help me. They all offered to call me back later with a quote when it was convenient for them. All did and all offered to come at their convenience with prices from $275 to $500. A premier salon even quoted $1,000.

The spa people were a little bit more service-oriented and knowledgeable. For a half-day treatment (3-3.5 hours), which consisted of a 1.5-hour massage, facial, exfoliation skin treatment, manicure and pedicure, charged between $275 and $600. No after-hours or walk-in service available.

Let’s use the average of $500 for both groups.

Professional consultation or arrangements:

I have often believed that we undervalue our knowledge in funeral service so it was my decision to speak with three different professionals and see what their knowledge is worth.

• An accountant about tax planning
• A lawyer about estate planning
• A contractor to estimate replacing a water heater

The accountants would not quote me any advise on planning or filing or even opinions for free. Not one would give me an estimate on costs to do my taxes, even when I furnished them with a lot of information about how uncomplicated my return would be. All were more than happy to tell me they could offer a better service than the “chain stores.” And all quoted their fee: average hourly “consultation” rate for a junior was $100/hour. All could see me “in a few days” during office hours if I cared to make an appointment.

It was the same with the lawyers. Some claimed to make wills for $100 but said they had to talk it over in person first because they did not want to mislead me with a low price if the estate was complicated. Average hourly consultation rate for a junior was $125. All would see me within one working day during office hours if I made an appointment.

The contractors all had to come and see the job first, none would quote even when I explained in detail the model we had, how to access it and where we lived because they believed there is always something the customer misses or something that breaks during the removal or installation that the customer would have to pay for. The average hourly rate was $80. Those who actually called me back had higher rates for after-hours and claimed to be there to respond within one working day.

I am sure that you are not surprised by my experience when I say that none of the above professionals was reachable when I called, and none returned my call promptly. In fact several didn’t even call me back.

Without exception, all of the professionals I spoke to were resentful of me requesting they come to me at my convenience or work after-hours. All laid down clear boundaries of what they would tell me on the phone. When I told them they were more expensive than another professional there was no mention of a discount or any discussion as to why, it was simply explained: “These are our fees, sir.”

Considering the average arrangements conference is 1.5 hours whether pre-need or at-need, let’s go with $175 during normal business hours.

Girl Friday services:

I’ve read that to facilitate the average traditional funeral involves more than 80 man-hours of work. Clerical duties, telephone work, typing, filing of documents and running around that we all do to make a funeral happen averages 40 hours; once remove the arrangements conference and decedent transfer and embalming. To hire non-professional staff, neat in appearance, who are able to perform receptionist duties, type, operate a computer, drive and have sufficient people skills to handle funeral attendees hired from a temp agency ranged from $25 to $35 per hour.

So, 40 hours at $30/hour is an even $1,200.

Professional vehicles:

Let’s agree we are looking at 25 miles for a transport vehicle carrying our staff and the casket to our rental meeting space. To rent a full size SUV for a day runs about $125 with gas and insurance, a full size car runs about $85 with gas and insurance.

Let’s also agree we are looking at four hours of driving time and waiting time to facilitate a family pick-up, have a service and return the family home. Limousine rentals are $75 hourly with minimums averaging $175 in my area.

Rolling stock as above $385.


I decided to look at wedding invitations for a comparison to our memorial stationary packages. Average cost of invitations was more than $2 a piece with several days waiting time. Let’s say we have 200 printed plus a book – average cost was $450.

I am certain that we can go on with other services we offer to a family in need but lets just stop here and total the services we have compared – $3,785. With the average cost of a funeral in North America being about $5,000 including merchandise and requiring a lot more service and facility than described above, it seems to me that our prices are unjustifiably low.

Upon fee comparison it occurred to me that we do not value our services and merchandise as confidently as these other so called professional groups.

I am sure that each reader has encountered many similar people. People who tell us they “could never do what we do.” I have been privileged to travel a lot of this world, and have had the pleasure of visiting funeral providers in 28 countries. Truthfully, there is not a single place where I have been where the story is any different.

Consider another large professional challenge. I am sure many readers will agree that there exists a shortage of quality people who desire to do this kind of work. While considering this I asked my local Costco store manager if I could do a one-hour market survey in his parking lot about the “high cost of funerals.” He agreed since he was offering caskets and urns for sale.

It was a Saturday morning. I took a clipboard, a set of car keys and a hand-drawn map with directions to a local veterans hospital. I stopped quite a number of people and asked them a simple question: “Would you be willing to drop what you are doing right now, take my car and go to the hospital, proceed to the morgue and pick up the dead body of a man, then immediately return to my location?” I said it would likely take less than two hours. I also explained that I would be willing to pay them $100 per hour for the service.” Not one person would do it. When increased the rate to $500, I again had no volunteers.

Perhaps it is time that we in funeral service reconsider our price structuring for the services we render. I am quite certain that our charges are under “market value.”

Jeff began his funeral service career in the pre-need sales division of a large cemetery/funeral chain in 1985. He graduated first in his class from the Alberta School of Mortuary Science in 1989. Jeff’s working experience is varied and includes work on a project establishing mortuary embalming in Japan, manager of a high volume mortuary, owner of a safety training company, instructor at the Center for Funeral Service Education at Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta, and representative for Dodge Company, traveling Western Canada, Nevada, California, Hawaii and Guam. He is a qualified embalmer, crematory operator and a certified funeral celebrant. Jeff has lectured to professional funeral service associations and businesses in eight countries on three continents. He was a contributing author to Edition Three of the Embalming, History, Theory and Practise textbook and has articles published in The Mortuary Science Monitor, Canadian Funeral News, Canadian Funeral Director, The Australian Funeral Director and the Dodge Magazine. Jeff is the chairman of the Pacific Center for Advanced Studies in Cebu City, Philippines, acts as director of Far East operations for Blake Emergency Services and serves on advisory boards of several mortuary colleges. He resides in California and continues to travel extensively as a funeral service lecturer and educator.

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