The Public Outcry for Funeral Reform Part II

Lake View CemeteryRead Part I

In “Funeral Costs: What They Average; Are They Too High? Can They Be Reduced?”, a 1928 report for Metropolitan Life, John Gebhart, like Quincy Dowd, analyzed the competition between undertakers. Gebhart looked at thousands of funeral bills from around the country, and he kept his eye on detailed investigations of estate settlements in New York City, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. According to Gary Laderman in Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth Century America, Gebhart came to the following conclusions: that competition in the funeral business was not on the basis of price, that instead it was for “the possession of bodies;” that once the undertaker had possession of the body he could charge as much as possible.

There was stiff competition in the undertaking business because of small volume of business and large number of undertakers; this, Gebhart pointed out, was a motivation for “gouging and overselling.” He figured out that, based on the number of annual deaths compared to the number of undertakers, the average undertaker had to survive on one funeral per week, but because a small number of successful undertakers did more than one, most had to survive on less.

But like Dowd, Gebhart is charitable toward most of the funeral industry, even mentioning that some funeral directors were quite supportive of his investigation of the costs of burial, as they understood that such studies could ultimately benefit the industry. The funeral industry, he says, is fraught with difficulties that do not occur in other industries. Because customers may not be in a “rational frame of mind,” the temptation to make an easy buck off them is strong. It is therefore in the best interest of undertakers to behave ethically and to avoid “undue extravagance.” Laderman quotes Gebhart as follows:

We often hear of the funeral director who makes it a point to ascertain the value of the insurance or other savings which the family may have and who makes his bill large enough to absorb most of the money available. Such abuses, as we shall see later, do frequently occur. It is only fair to point out, however, that the ethical funeral director, who is at the same time a good business man, does not want to encourage undue extravagance for two perfectly good reasons: He wants to avoid bad debts, and he wants to keep the good will of the community… Moreover, families who purchase extravagant funerals are likely to regret their extravagance when they are in a more rational frame of mind and may even blame the funeral director for overcharging them.

The main motivator for Gebhart’s study, like that for Dowd’s, was concern for the poor, who sometimes spend more than their means because of unfortunate, popular beliefs about how the dead are most appropriately cared for. Because of these unenlightened views, such people are easy prey for funeral directors hoping to turn a big profit. The poor simply did not, though they should, pay for a funeral corresponding to their status and the value of their estate. Then, there would be no problem about burial costs. That the wealthy might pay for an extravagant funeral might be wasteful, but it would not put the same kind of economic stress on the survivors that such a funeral would for lower income customers.

Gebhart looked at spending patterns which suggested a different set of values operating among the upper classes compared to the middle and lower classes. The rich were more likely to spend money on monuments, and services like perpetual care of the cemetery site than on the funeral itself, and the disposal of the body. There was a desire among the rich to perpetuate the family name with a well-cared for cemetery plot. The funeral is dignified and not cheap, but not of the central importance that it has for those who are less wealthy, who care about a “fine funeral” to show respect for the dead, on the one hand, and impress neighbors on the other. Gebhart concludes that either the poor have “unreasonable” desires for extravagance, or they are victims of profiteers.

Gebhart can’t believe the tastes of the spending public or the sincerity of profit-minded funeral directors. At the end of his investigation, he concludes that the significant rise of the funeral industry in the early part of the twentieth century can be explained by three factors: a) The public has no idea what they’re doing, so price doesn’t matter, b) Because of insurance and savings, everyone but the poorest had ample funds to pay for funerals, and c) However the demand for expensive caskets and services mirrors the demand, to some extent, for extravagance in many areas of life.

Based on his analysis of funeral costs, he has two recommendations. One is that the industry must work with representatives from insurance companies, and civic and welfare agencies, and others, to reform the death business so competition is not the motivator for people working with the dead. Two is to educate the public on what is truly appropriate when it comes to disposal of the dead. Religious leaders may help with instilling reasonable values in consumers who go to church.

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