How ‘Big Funeral’ made the afterlife so expensive

“You can not die these days because it’s too expensive, ”Randy Hinojosa said Time last year. Hinojosa had just paid $ 15,000 for a funeral for his wife of 26 years after she died of coronavirus. Like thousands of families coping with unexpected funeral costs in the event of a pandemic, he drained his savings and launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover some of the losses. “I would not even ask anyone for money,” Hinojosa said, crying. “I was proud that I knew this.”

The pandemic, which has killed 690,000 Americans and counts, has reinforced the importance of quick, respectful disposition of the dead – and the unsustainable cost of doing business in the current system. In 2019, the average funeral cost $ 9,135, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. It included display and burial, but not shrinking cemetery space or large ticket items such as monuments and other grave markers. Even cremation, for decades promoted as a cheaper (and greener) alternative to burial, is now averaging $ 6,645.

These methods are not only economically destructive, they are also environmentally catastrophic. In addition to human remains, traditional burial puts an estimated 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete and 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde – a chemical used for embalming and a likely carcinogen – in the soil each year. Cremation, meanwhile, generates an estimated 534.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per day. Person – more than the emissions per. Inhabitant of Afghanistan.

These harsh lifestyle economies have contributed to a crisis in funeral poverty in the United States, says Victoria J. Haneman, a professor at Creighton University School of Law in Nebraska. Funeral poverty existed long before the pandemic, and without significant reforms of both the funeral industry and national and local funeral assistance systems, many families will continue to struggle with rising credit card debt and new personal loans amid their crushing grief.

In the worst case, people will be forced to leave their loved ones unclaimed in county custody, where sheriffs, doctors, social workers, chaplains and others will cremate or bury the remains. In the United States, as many as 3 percent of corpses are left independent each year, a number that has reportedly increased due to economic inequality, the opioid epidemic and the pandemic.

Although the United States has the resources to guarantee everyone a proper burial, they are not evenly distributed. “We should not normalize $ 9,000 as the average cost of a funeral,” Haneman says. “It’s not only dizzying, it’s completely unnecessary.”

For most of American history, people died at home where they were cared for by loved ones. Women in the community prepared the body while men made the coffin. That began to change with the Civil War, in which death took place on distant battlefields. Enterprising death people popularized subsequent embalming, a conservation technique that allowed families to send bodies over long distances so that the dead could be buried where they had lived.

Today, death is an industry of $ 20 billion. (This corresponds to the total turnover of the global music company in 2019 or the market for meat substitutes.) In its most corporate and cynical forms, it is characterized by largely uncontrolled prices, including markings of up to 500 percent on boxes. It is also defined by decades of resistance to innovation, although public attitudes towards death are changing. In 2015, for example, a funeral conglomerate estimated that for every 1 percent of its customers who opted for cremation, the company lost about $ 10 million — a “problem” some dead people try to solve by selling families often unnecessary services and products from the past. cremation embalming for expensive urns.

Where many communities were once served by small mother-and-pop funeral shops, the death-care landscape has been transformed by shareholder-run businesses. Service Corporation International is the largest provider of funeral services in North America with over 1,500 funeral homes and 500 cemeteries in its portfolio, accounting for approximately 16 percent of the total market share. Instead of lowering prices as it scales, SCI prices are on average 47 to 72 percent higher than those of competitors, according to a 2017 report approved by the Funeral Consumers Alliance. The only people who do not seem to mind are investors whose stock has risen 151 percent over five years. Thanks to the efforts of Big Funeral, the industry has a monopoly on the afterlife – and that prices people out to die.

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