My editor and good buddy Susan Loving, who is outstanding at her job, sends me news items now and then, which I greatly appreciate. The other day she forwarded me a news piece called “Weak Economy Sparks Rebirth of Funeral Sciences.” I have to admit that when I finished reading the article I was not particularly impressed however I did make notations to myself for later reference, and filed it away in my gigantic file label “Untruths About Funeral Service.” Well “later reference” time is today.
It appears that the idea that funeral service is “recession proof” has taken on a life of its own. After a lifetime in funeral service I personally have never once seen any hard data to support such a claim. Announcing to the world that funeral service is recession proof is not true. The people who look at funeral service as a highly secure line of work are not giving any attention to the glaring fact that yes, the death rate is 100%, but when a death occurs the family just might NOT call your funeral home. Here is a funeral truth – there is one hell of a bunch of funeral homes out in the world. Any funeral director who is seasoned knows very well the haunting, sickening, feeling when you pick up the newspaper and the other funeral homes in town each have two, three, ten, twenty funerals going on and I have not had a call in three weeks. The 100% death rate means absolutely nothing unless the family chooses to call YOU.
The other item which the article Susan sent to me referred to as additional proof that funeral service is recession proof is the frequently heard claim that no funeral homes went out of business during the Great Depression. Where do they get this stuff from?
Again without any hard data it is easy to make the claim that no funeral homes went under during the Great Depression because once again the death rate is 100% and families had to pay the funeral bill. The idea that families had to pay the funeral bill during the Great Depression is totally absurd. I worked for many years with several funeral directors who were extremely active in funeral service in the 1930’s and when I posed the question of how they survived all of them responded with this: “We gave away a lot of funerals.”
The reason the funeral homes during the Great Depression survived was not because every family could pay, but because in order to keep their client base the typical funeral director was obliged to be understanding and give the funeral away and/or accept what little the family could afford to pay, or if the family agreed to set up payment plans. The recession proof fantasy of funeral service during the Great Depression in truth came down to the kindness and generosity of the funeral directors in this county.
To survive these funeral directors had to wait to buy the new hearse, had to send their children to public schools, had to eat a different diet, had to pinch pennies, had to go without new clothes, had live very frugally, as everyone else did in this country.
However many undertakers did close their doors during the Great Depression – and not because of a shaky economy but simply because many undertakers refused to leave their downtown undertaking parlors and relocate into one of the big mansions in town that the owners had lost because of the Great Depression. The “funeral home” as we know it today had its genesis during the Great Depression because home funerals were vanishing as families relocated to smaller homes apartments and the undertakers, the forward-thinking ones anyway, could buy these gigantic homes for a song and have the funeral home downstairs, and their family would live upstairs. Then when Charlie’s mother died the family would call their funeral director friend who had remodeled and refurbished the old mansion and say “Can we lay Mom out in your living room?” So the funeral home was actually the home of the funeral director and his family.
So yes, some undertakers did fold up in the Great Depression because they refused to change with the times. Now there is an interesting idea, changing with the times. To prove this point just look at how many funeral homes to this very day are located in old mansions, and then take a look at how many undertaking parlors are left on Main Street downtown.
Today many, many funeral directors still will open up their hearts and give a funeral away. This has nothing to do with a recession because in good times and bad the poor and disenfranchised have been with us constantly, and while Sears or Macy’s don’t have to deal with the poor, funeral directors are ethically obligated to serve regardless of economic trends. Yes to be sure there are today certain funeral companies who have very strict payment policies, and even some who if the bank will not help the family the funeral home suggests that the family go somewhere else. I understand all the rationale for such behaviors, but I also know that those types of strict policies will have consequences in the future.
I have a great friend who I admired and loved greatly in the funeral service. He was very successful and one time I asked him “What one thing do you attribute your success to?” This Great American Funeral Director did not hesitate at all and said, “I have always taken care of the poor.”